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Time Capsule: Every Time I Say It’s About Patient Care, You Tell Me It’s a Business: Healthcare IT Lessons Learned from “North Dallas Forty”

May 3, 2013 Time Capsule 1 Comment

I wrote weekly editorials for a boutique industry newsletter for several years, anxious for both audience and income. I learned a lot about coming up with ideas for the weekly grind, trying to be simultaneously opinionated and entertaining in a few hundred words, and not sleeping much because I was working all the time. They’re fun to read as a look back at what was important then (and often still important now).

I wrote this piece in October 2008.

Every Time I Say It’s About Patient Care, You Tell Me It’s a Business: Healthcare IT Lessons Learned from “North Dallas Forty”
By Mr. HIStalk


One of my favorite and most insightful lines from any movie comes from “North Dallas Forty,” a cynical and dark football film from 1979. In a key scene, fictional football player O.W. Shaddock, masterfully played by former Oakland Raider John Matuszak, explodes his rage and frustration onto the team’s coaches, who constantly resort to using fear and ridicule to get tired and injured players to keep performing even when they shouldn’t. "Every time I say it’s a game, you tell me it’s a business. Every time I say it’s a business, you tell me it’s a game."

The quote may have been about sports, but it’s relevant to healthcare as well.

I’ve worked for both vendors and hospitals. There were plenty of times on both sides where I wanted to scream at management, “Every time I say it’s about patient care, you tell me it’s a business. Every time I say it’s a business, you tell me it’s about patient care.”

Our unusually capitalist approach to healthcare delivery is schizophrenic. Everybody understands giving massages or tummy tucks for the biggest fee the market will bear, but there’s something inherently distasteful in performing life-saving surgery or seeing patients through their final days of cancer while a business guy taps his calculator every now and then to remind everybody — including the patient — to keep the cost down.

IT is usually smack in the middle of that rift between clinicians and executives, the bearer of bad news about something one group wants that the other is loathe to deliver. Clinicians resent being told how to deliver care by $1 million hospital CEOs and their business-savvy underlings. The people in the mahogany offices can’t talk slowly enough about cost control to get the message across the financially naïve white coats who would bankrupt the place if someone wasn’t watching the till. Somebody wants a CPOE system or a tool to run a balanced scorecard and the IT person knows exactly which part of the organization will be calling for his or her head.

Clinical people working for vendors have the same struggle. They’re supervised by executives who not only have never delivered care, but who most often drifted into healthcare by accident and will probably drift right back out again someday. Every undelivered system enhancement or overstated capability make the clinicians want to scream like O.W. Shaddock, physically threatening an overconfident MBA vendor suit whose last service to others was whispering the Black-Scholes equation to a B-school classmate during a tough finance test.

We’re in a confounding business whose mission is frustratingly mixed. Deliver the best care or the best clinical software possible – as long as it’s profitable. If it’s not, the MBAs are ready to rush in and whip the widgets into shape. That’s a threat and a promise.

Maybe it would help to see how the other half lives. Clinicians should sit through the meetings in which life-or-death decisions are made that concern the health of the entire organization, not that of individual patients. Executives should have to face real patients and caregivers regularly just to remind themselves of a mission more important than fancy new buildings and slick marketing.

And IT folks working for both providers and vendors … well, there’s really nothing you can do except wait for the dust to settle and support and enable whatever strategic plan results. Those other folks are playing tug-of-war and you’re the rope.

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Currently there is "1 comment" on this Article:

  1. Beautiful. It’s why “free market” and “healthcare” should never be used in the same sentence. In almost all other businesses, a “product” has a maximum market value.

    As soon as you tell me what the value of your 8 year old son’s life is, I’ll figure out a way to run healthcare like a business…

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