With a quiet confidence, Dr. Chris Yeung is successfully building on a medical family legacy. A proud Asian American physician, his journey has been forged through talent, skill, and shrewd business acumen while never forgetting the traditions instilled in him. Chris Yeung, MD, is a board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon. He earned his undergraduate degree from University of California San Diego. He then graduated in the top 5% of his medical school class at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. He completed orthopedic residency at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center, and a spine surgery fellowship at the USC Center for Orthopedic Spine Surgery in Los Angeles.
A PHYSICIAN, ALWAYS ON THE MOVE
Dr. Yeung has three different types of days: one in which he’s seeing patients at his clinic, Desert Institute for Spine Care (DISC), and a second in which he’s conducting three or four surgeries at a hospital or ambulatory surgery centers. The third type of day is when he serves as an orthopedic spine consultant for several major league sports teams, covering games, working closely with head trainers and team doctors to diagnose injuries, develop treatment plans, and execute the plans.
Dr. Yeung is the team spine consultant for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals, Colorado Rockies, Los Angeles Dodgers, LA Angels, Cincinnati Reds, and Arizona State University. He not only works with professional sports teams but is also part owner of Phoenix Rising FC.
Dr Yeung is active in clinical research serving as the principal investigator in various FDA studies, including lumbar artificial disc replacement, cervical artificial disc replacement, and Coflex interlaminar stabilization.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Growing up, Dr. Chris Yeung didn’t have far to look when it came to a role model. His father, Anthony T. Yeung, MD, is a renowned orthopedic spine surgeon well known for his development of ultra-minimally invasive spine surgery and endoscopic spine surgery. Emigrating from China with his mother, Dr. Anthony Yeung grew up quickly, learning to speak only English at home and developing a strong work ethic and an entrepreneurial spirit that led him to found what has become DISC. As he was considering the field of medicine, Dr. Chris Yeung leaned on the motivation of an immigrant family to succeed in America.
DISC is a multi-location practice that Dr. Yeung credits Stephanie Helston, JD, for helping to steer in the right direction. Her executive experience running the practice and staff allows Dr. Yeung and his four partners Justin Field, MD; Nima Salari, MD, FAAOS; Joshua Abrams, DO; and Mark Wang, MD, to focus on medical care for patients.
“Unfortunately, health care costs have skyrocketed, and insurance companies are trying to control costs. A big way they do it is to just reflexively deny care"
INSURANCE'S IMPACT ON DISC
Since launching in the 1920s with a focus on surgery, emergency visits, and births, commercial health insurance carriers have evolved to cover a much wider range of services. The large influence of private insurers over medical decisions is often contentious with physicians. Dr. Yeung shares how his practice works with insurance carriers.
DISC currently receives payments from around 50% commercial insurance, 30% Medicare, 10% cash, and 10% worker’s compensation. The Medicare percentage has risen with the aging population, while cash payment is preferred since it cuts out the middleman and, in most cases, motivates the patient to do well before, during, and after the procedure.
“Unfortunately, health care costs have skyrocketed, and insurance companies are trying to control costs. A big way they do it is to just reflexively deny care,” says Dr. Yeung.
The administrative burden on physicians and their practices has gotten worse, he says, “From physicians being second-guessed about their recommendations to medical denials to guidelines that may or may not be guidelines from one day to the next.” The consequences of the stress and red tape lead to strained doctor-patient relationships because patients are made to wait while in pain, with some told their treatment or procedure will be denied. Those patients often take out their frustrations on the physician and staff.
Even though insurance companies hired medical directors and installed peer-to-peer appeals for delays or denials, the process has become more difficult. DISC staff use a lot of their time in the back-and-forth exchanges for authorizations, losing precious time with patients. Long delays lead to frustrated patients who give up or change insurance companies, which ends or restarts the process. Even when surgical procedures are approved, insurers often dictate what implants the surgeon can and cannot use.
Dr. Yeung says, “When you interject a third party in the relationship between doctor and patient, it’s always going to be frustrating. The regulations and requirements for approving needed care continue to change and continue to be more restrictive. So, it inhibits the relationship.”
Another source of physician apprehension is vertical integration of insurance companies buying private practices and hospitals. It becomes a scary prospect for private practices to compete. “The potential for an insurance company to narrow their networks to only employed physicians is real,” states Dr. Yeung.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
“Insurance companies can build more collaborative relationships with physicians, if they can again trust physicians to do what’s right, which a vast majority do,” says Dr. Yeung. He acknowledges that the costs of health care have skyrocketed, yet second guessing physicians on their medical diagnosis make the relationship more adversarial and can harm patients. Insurance companies collect a ton of data on physicians and if physicians meet quality and cost effectiveness targets, it would be nice to get the benefit of the doubt on requested care.
As a free market physician, Dr. Yeung placed less focus on fighting with insurance carriers and more on building a strong practice with the right partners and superior outcomes. He has never been a proponent of more government intervention when it comes to physicians and the relationships they have with commercial insurance. Yet, he understands the need for physicians to team up. He says, “There’s some
safety in numbers, so becoming a bigger practice may be a good direction.” He admits there are positives in having better negotiating power with large group practices, but ultimately a practice that produces superior outcome will attract more patients willing to treat regardless of their insurance status.
Hospital diversification or aligning with different hospital systems is also an important solution to adapt to the growing influence of insurance companies. Some insurance plans align themselves with certain hospital systems and only cover treatment at those hospital systems. So private practice physicians should be on staff at multiple hospital systems in order to care for these patients.
Finally, Dr. Yeung believes that physicians can overcome obstacles set by private insurance companies by advocating for patients by having systems in place that help staff and surgery schedulers be on top of each patient’s delay or denial and the appeals process to secure coverage. Also, physicians need to have exceptional interpersonal skills when it comes to physician bedside manner with patients. That builds a positive relationship with each patient and makes them feel prioritized, ensuring each patient remains committed to their treatment or procedure.
WHAT WE LEARNED
Dr. Christopher Yeung has always appreciated the positive influence his father Dr. Anthony Yeung has had throughout his medical journey. Yet, he is confident and can speak with conviction of growing into a successful physician and practice owner by travelling on a path built by his own hard work, dedication, and working with people he can trust. Despite constraints often placed on his practice by working with commercial insurance carriers, Dr. Yeung and DISC are successful because they have the right attitude toward patient care, take care of their employees, and are nimble operators always looking to be proactive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Edward Araujo serves both as Managing Editor for Arizona Physician Magazine and Communications Coordinator at the Maricopa County Medical Society (MCMS). He has over 15 years of digital marketing and non profit operational experience.