Managing Your Practice

The economics of surgical gynecology: How we can not only survive, but thrive, in the 21st Century

Q&A with Barbara S. Levy, MD, vice president of health policy at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists



Barbara S. Levy, MD, spent 29 years in private practice before accepting an appointment as vice president of health policy at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Those 29 years in private practice weren’t her only window onto the health-care arena, however. She has served as chair of the Resource Based Relative Value Scale Update Committee for the American Medical Association for 3 years; as medical director of Women’s and Children’s Services at Franciscan Health System in Tacoma, Washington; and as a long-time member of the OBG Management Board of Editors. As a result, she offers an informed and well-rounded perspective on the economics of surgical gynecology—the subject of a keynote address she delivered at the 2012 Pelvic Anatomy and Gynecologic Surgery (PAGS) symposium in December.

We sat down with Dr. Levy after her talk to explore some of the issues she raised—the focus of this Q&A. Dr. Levy also summarizes the high points of her talk in a video presentation available at

OBG Management: What prompted you to leave private practice, move across country, and accept the post at ACOG?

Dr. Levy: I had spent the better part of 29 years complaining and feeling reasonably unhappy with what organized medicine was doing—or not doing—for ObGyns and our patients. I felt that the specialty was not really out there in front of the curve, driving the bus, so to speak, but was a victim of broader forces. So when I was given an opportunity to influence the way we approach health-care policy, to enable us to drive our own bus, I decided to take the challenge. I’m not sure I can make a difference, but I’m going to do everything possible to put us in control of our destiny. There are a lot of pitfalls out there, but I think that, given a commitment to doing what is right, we may be able to change the way we deliver health care in this country.

OBG Management: So what’s wrong with the way we deliver health care in the United States?

Dr. Levy: We are spending an inordinate amount of money. I’ve heard it referred to as an “investment,” but I’m not sure that word is accurate. It’s really an expenditure of trillions of dollars—as much as 17% of gross domestic product—but what are we getting in return? We’re not getting what we want or need. There is a lot of innovation out there, but what is it bringing us? Do we have better health care in this country, based on our per capita expenditure, than other developed nations have? The answer is “No.”

OBG Management: Why do you think that is?

Dr. Levy: If you look at the growth in Part B Medicare, and focus on where we’re spending the money, the culprits are pharmaceuticals, a huge increase in testing and imaging, and a sharp rise in office-based procedures. The complexity of services has also increased dramatically. Our population is aging, and obesity is epidemic and driving costs for management of diabetes, hypertension, and chronic heart disease, as well as joint replacements and back surgery. About 85% of Medicare dollars go to the care of 15% to 20% of the Medicare population. Yes, we’re reducing death rates from cardiovascular disease and cancer, but now we have a larger population of patients who have chronic, active disease.

OBG Management: Who’s responsible for this problem?

Dr. Levy: Our health-care systems have created this mess in many ways. We spend $98 billion annually on hospitalization for pregnancy and childbirth, but our mortality rate is increasing. We rank 50th in the world in maternal mortality despite a cesarean delivery rate over 30%, despite all the money that we’re spending—with maternal mortality higher here than in almost every European country, as well as several nations in Asia and the Middle East.1

OBG Management: Why are we spending so much money?

Dr. Levy: We have become so fearful—of poor outcomes, of litigation, and our patients are coming to us with demands for tests and treatment that cost them little or nothing—that we intervene with tests and procedures that increase the cost of care without providing any true benefit in terms of outcome.

We’ve also made some poor choices. We’ve allowed ourselves to be the victims of legislation, of rule-making, because we don’t sit down and read the 1,300 or so pages in the Federal Register from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) on proposed rule-making every year. Things happen to us that we aren’t aware of. We have allowed ourselves to be drawn in by innovation, by testing, and by fear until we have begun to do things that may not have any real benefit for our patients.


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