Somewhere in the explanation for pursuing an acquisition or merger, "economies of scale" invariably will be offered as a rationale. Indeed, it's often treated as a given — a justification so obvious that it doesn't require discussion. "This deal (merger or acquisition) will provide economies of scale." Heads nod.

Economies of scale might be a reality in some industries, particularly those with large fixed costs where higher efficiency can be achieved by concentrating everything in one production plant instead of two. Unfortunately, health care is not one of those industries.

Economies of scale are rooted in a manufacturing era characterized by Henry Ford and his enormous, vertically integrated, bumper-to-bumper manufacturing and assembly complexes. Ford's assembly line drove down the costs of production to the point that the automobile became affordable to the masses. But Ford was able to concentrate the production of cars in a few factories and then distribute the cars worldwide. Customers did not have to come to Detroit to drive their cars the way patients must come to a physician to have their gallbladders removed.

Health care depends on proximity. Patients will and should travel only so far to receive the preponderance of their care. While some patients will travel significant distances to receive care they view as uniquely advanced for conditions they know to be particularly threatening, they usually prefer their care delivered close to home. Furthermore, most professional caregivers are not oriented to working as assembly-line workers.

Beyond the Financial Implications

It is common to take a limited view of economies of scale. For many, it's a purely financial consideration. Within health care, economies of scale often are associated with the increased income base that results from combining the revenue streams of two or more once separate hospitals or health systems. This larger financial scale is presumed to be favored by the capital markets or, more specifically, the rating agencies that often give an advantage to large-scale hospitals and health systems.

But if the past few years reinforce anything related to capital markets, it's the fallibility of the rating agencies and other market-makers when it comes to judging what matters. It is unlikely that the size of the revenue stream alone will impress investors who ultimately will look to the margin produced on that revenue stream when assessing the quality of the enterprise. There are still far too many high-margin, single hospitals to conclude that financial scale delivers a demonstrable advantage.

Yet, many health care executives and their board members continue to expect economies of scale associated with an acquisition or merger to provide a pathway to sustainability. This has led some hospitals to undertake acquisition of smaller, often rural, hospitals. While this allows the acquiring hospital to add the acquired hospital's revenue stream immediately to its own, it often also entails making a capital commitment.

This commitment often obligates the acquirer to invest in outdated and capital-starved, Hill Burton-era facilities. This, in turn, can divert scarce capital from investments in a core campus where the advantages of proximity could have been used to build margins and encourage organic growth. Such diversion of scarce capital becomes more problematic when it is accompanied by discontent and conflict among physicians who see scarce resources shifted to prop up a weak institution with limited prospects.

There are real limits to the benefits of spreading infrastructure and production across facilities that are not in reasonable proximity to one another. To optimize productivity, physicians and other caregivers must be near one another. By definition, the interface between patient and caregivers is place-dependent. And the productivity of the caregiver often depends on being in proximity not only to a sufficient volume of patients, but also to other caregivers, technology and facilities.

Technology can collapse distance by generating virtual proximities. The telegraph, telephone, radio, television and computer all prospered as substitutes for proximity, but a network had to be built and connected. Today, health care remains a uniquely disconnected industry.

In cases where hospitals are in reasonable proximity (within a couple miles) there is obviously an opportunity to scale up one hospital by closing the other or to consolidate programs and service lines at one hospital versus the other. But many hospital executives have been loathe to undertake such moves because physicians and the community adamantly may oppose them. In addition, a hospital merger and closure that consolidates a market may draw the attention of the Federal Trade Commission if the consolidation appears to have been designed to increase prices through creation of a monopoly or quasi-monopoly.

Economies of Scope

One of the advantages often associated with economies of scale is market power, some of which can result from amortizing advertising and marketing budgets across multiple markets. The key is to deliver one unified proposition in those markets, but that requires standardization of output (outcomes and experience) from different sites.

Few hospital systems have been able to come close to achieving such standardization. For the most part, the variation in the output from multiple hospitals within a single health system remains high. As a result, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to deliver a coherent marketing proposition. It also has been extremely difficult to affect the flow of patients across multiple hospitals and markets. It is an old wisdom that observes, "Hospitals don't refer to hospitals. Doctors refer to hospitals (and other doctors)."

What often pass as "economies of scale" are really "economies of scope." Economies of scope derive from centralizing functions such as marketing and finance to amortize them in multiple operating entities (often quite diverse operating entities). It was economies of scope that underpinned the rationale for developing "conglomerates" in the '70s and '80s. The failure of economies of scope to deliver a clear benefit explains why the "break-up value" of many of those conglomerates ultimately exceeded their unified value.

The most obvious opportunity to achieve economies of scope through centralization and spreading infrastructure relates to administration. One CEO can run multiple hospitals. And those hospitals may need only one chief financial officer, one chief marketing officer, one human resources officer, one legal counsel and one chief information officer.

But administrative costs for a hospital typically run about 15 percent of total expenses and, in my experience, most health systems have been able to save only about 15 percent of that. In truth, for 85 percent of expenses there are few opportunities to create economies of scope for multiple hospital campuses.

When an Organization Becomes Too Unwieldy

Economies of scale have a dark side: diseconomies of scale. There is a point at which the disadvantages of scale will overwhelm any of its purported benefits. Such diseconomies are particularly pronounced in health care where the scale of the enterprise must stay in some proportion to the human scale of the patients and caregivers it serves.

Health care institutions and the facilities they operate can become too sprawling and complex; size and complexity become difficult to navigate and thus alienating. At some point, people begin to resist multiple parking decks, long winding corridors, high-rise elevator rides and a lack of internal coherence. Even an organization as committed to being patient-centric as Mayo Clinic suffers from diseconomies of scale: Visitors to its Rochester campus will note the resting benches that are scattered along Mayo's seemingly endless hallways, underground subways and skywalks.

Most people do not know that the city of Rochester is served by two multispecialty group practices. The Olmsted Medical Center has prospered in the shadow of goliath Mayo. It has carved out its success by being what Mayo increasingly can't be: convenient, particularly for the residents of Rochester. Olmsted focuses on " … the little things … the little considerations, the little courtesies … that are the most important to colleagues as well as customers."

The Personal Touch

Another diseconomy of scale is particularly applicable to hotels and hospitals: loss of intimacy. There is a direct correlation between size and responsiveness. Smaller hospitals can be more responsive at a human level than can big hospitals. As scale grows, intimacy withers. It's as close to a law of nature as you'll get when it comes to organizational design.

Large scale also hurts teamwork and collaboration because the distance grows between those who might team up. There is a number beyond which robust teamwork and collaboration becomes impossible because unit cohesion becomes too diluted.

Distinguished professor of management Frederick Herzberg spoke to the effects of diseconomies of scale: "Numbers numb our feelings for what is being counted and lead to adoration of the economies of scale. Passion is in the feeling of the quality of the experience, not in trying to measure it."

Corporate raider and oil magnate T. Boone Pickens put it more plainly: "It's unusual to find a large corporation that's efficient. I know about economies of scale and all the other advantages that are supposed to come with size. But when you get an inside look, it's easy to see how inefficient big business really is. Most corporate bureaucracies have more people than they have work."

Consolidation of hospitals to achieve economies of scale remains a pipe dream, but things may change because of two developments: the employment of physicians by hospitals and the exponential power of networks.

The Employment of Physicians by Hospitals

Today, hospital acquisitions and mergers often buy assets much more valuable than beds, operating suites and imaging centers. They buy a network of employed physicians. Even the most perverse of markets eventually yields to the power of supply and demand. Physician supply is declining, and demand for physician services is increasing. The future will belong to whoever best integrates with physicians.

In addition to market leverage, consolidation of the physician supply under unified ownership creates at least the possibility of better productivity and improved quality in what remains largely a cottage industry. By using retail methods and technologies, hospitals can improve the patient experience as well as operational efficiency.

They also can standardize and amortize costly infrastructure like information technology. And, as the physicians' employers, hospitals can influence referral patterns to increase volume and enhance the patient mix.

Because so much of hospital employment of physicians to date has been ad hoc and undisciplined, the transition from the current state (highly variable and heterogeneous) to the desired future state (more standardized and homogeneous) likely will be painful and disruptive.

The Exponential Power of Networks

As some networks, products and services become more widely used, they become exponentially more valuable. This is sometimes referred to as the "network effect." For example, every new fax machine added to phone lines gains exponential value because of all the other fax machines in use.

The Internet often is used to demonstrate the same effect. The marginal cost of adding one more user to the network is close to zero, but the resulting benefit is huge. There is an important difference between telephones and computers when it comes to facilitating connections. One phone user generally talks with only one other phone user. Adding a computer to the Internet packs a bigger punch because one user links simultaneously to large numbers of other users.

Networks can be deceptive because they often convey a sense that not much is happening — until the number of users reaches critical mass and the network begins to grow exponentially. This has been the pattern in the use of telephones, fax machines, the Internet and social networks. Most of the big growth stories of the past decade have been built on economies of connection rather than economies of scale. Microsoft, eBay, Facebook and Verizon all have been benefactors of such economies.

The network effect is associated closely with Metcalfe's Law, named for 3Com co-founder Bob Metcalfe, who articulated the power of the network in this fashion: n x n (where n equals the number of users). Metcalfe argued that when networks reach a certain critical mass or scale, the exponential power of the network effect kicks in. This effect was seen before Metcalfe's time. In 1917, N. Lytkins, an employee of Bell Telephone, presented a paper pointing out the effect among phone users. This thinking led Bell to pursue the acquisition and merger of 4,000 local and regional telephone exchanges into what became the "Bell System."

Early signs of a similar explosion may be emerging in the number of physicians using smart phones and iPads to care for patients. A recent article in American Medical News suggested that 30 percent of physicians already are using iPads to access EMRs, view radiology images and communicate with patients, and up to 80 percent of physicians are using smart phones for some of the same applications. These physicians essentially are blowing past the "clogged" IT systems of hospitals as well as other institutional pathways. Such use suggests that iPads and smart phones may be reaching critical mass among caregivers.

Economies of Connection

Proximity and network effects suggest a different notion of scale than that typically associated with economies of scale. Proximity and networks represent "economies of connection." They generate real value by connecting intellect, facilitating collegiality and supporting collaboration.

The system Bell created by merging telephone exchanges became so overwhelmingly powerful that it took government intervention to rein it in. Physicians and other caregivers are analogous to the telephone exchanges that Bell consolidated. Technology alone does not constitute the basis for the exchanges that technology enabled. Caregivers constitute the exchanges.

As health care leaders consider the future, they would be wise to abandon notions of "economies of scale" rooted in financial transactions and mass production. It's time to pursue those mergers and acquisitions that provide the best opportunities to consolidate caregivers in a way that facilitates "economies of connection." Whoever gets there first may be able to lock in a long-lasting advantage.

Dan Beckham is president of The Beckham Company, a strategic consulting firm based in Bluffton, S.C. He is also a regular contributor to H&HN Daily.