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private practice

It has always been my assumption that my new practice will be as “digital” as possible. No, I am not going into urology, I am talking about computers. [Waiting for the chuckles to subside]

For at least ten years, I’ve used a digital EKG and spirometer that integrated with our medical record system, taking the data and storing it as meaningful numbers, not just pictures of squiggly lines (which is how EKG’s and spirometry reports appear to most folks). Since this has been obvious from the early EMR days, the interfaces between medical devices and EMR systems has been a given. I never considered any other way of doing these studies, and never considered using them without a robust interface.

Imagine my surprise when I was informed that my EMR manufacturer would charge me $750 to allow it’s system to interface with a device from their list of “approved devices.” Now, they do “discount” the second interface to $500, and then take a measly $250 for each additional device I want to integrate, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. Yet I couldn’t walk away from this news without feeling like I had been gouged.

Gouging is the practice of charging extra for someone for something they have no choice but to get. I need a lab interface, and the EMR vendor (not just mine, all of the major EMR vendors do it) charges an interface fee to the lab company, despite the fact that the interface has been done thousands of times and undoubtedly has a very well-worn implementation path. This one doesn’t hurt me personally, as it is the lab company (that faceless corporate entity) that must dole out the cash to a third-party to do business with me.

Doing construction in my office, I constantly worry about being gouged. When the original estimate of the cost of construction is again superseded because of an unforeseen problem with the ductwork, I am at the mercy of the builder. Fortunately, I think I found a construction company with integrity. Perhaps I am too ignorant to know I am being overcharged, but I would rather assume better of my builders (who I’ve grown to like).

Yet thinking about gouging ultimately brings me back to the whole purpose of what I am doing with my new practice, and what drove me away from the health care system everyone is so fond of. If there is anywhere in life where people get gouged or are in constant fear of gouging, it is in health care. Continue reading “Rob’s New Economics of Practice Management”

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Finally.

I can finally see progress in what I am doing.  Above is a photo of the front page of my new practice website (visit http://doctorlamberts.org).

There still is a little “Lorem ipsum” here and there – like having labels you missed on a shirt you are wearing – but I am very happy with the look.  The pictures of the sepia photos with the iPad making it color were the genius of my web developer (with some suggestions from me), giving a perfect image of the use of technology to accomplish “old-fashioned care made new.”

I’ve spent good portion of the past few days writing the content (replacing most of the “Lorem ipsum”).  Of what I’ve written, the strongest was in the section “Why It’s Different,” where I compare life in a traditional practice to what I intend to do.  Here are a few examples:

“I Need an Appointment”

Traditional Practice

· Call the office, hear a message about calling 911, get placed on hold or leave voice message (after navigating automated attendant).
· Get called back to find out the reason for your appointment.
· Appointment is made around what is open for the doctor.
· Take time away from your schedule to meet doctor’s schedule.

Our Practice:

· Log on to portal and directly make your own appointment to fit your schedule.
Or
· Call the office and tell a human being that you need an appointment.

Continue reading “Progress”

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Things have been crazy.  It’s much, much more difficult to build a new practice than I expected.  I opened up sign-up for my patients, getting less of a response than expected.  This, along with some questions from prospective patients has made it clear that there is still confusion on the part of potential patients.  So here is a Q and A I sent as a newsletter (and will use when marketing the practice).

About My New Practice

Q. Why did I do this?

A.  I get to be a doctor again (perhaps for the first time).  I got tired of giving patients care that wasn’t as good as it could be.  I got tired of working for a system that pays more for bad care than for good.  I got tired of forcing patients to come in for care I could’ve given over the phone.  I got tired of giving time that should be for my patients to following arduous regulations.  I got tired of medical records not meant for actual patient care, but instead for compliance with ridiculous government rules.  Making this change gives me the one thing our system doesn’t want to pay for: time devoted for the good of my patients.

Q. How can I afford to do this?

A. I have greatly decreased my overhead by not accepting insurance and keeping my charges simple.  My goal is to have 1000 patients paying the monthly fee, which will limit the number of staff I need to hire.

Q. When will it open?

A.  My office will open in January, 2013, but the exact date is still not set.  I had initially hoped to be already seeing patients, but things always are harder than they seem.

Q.  What makes this better for patients?

A.  The main advantage is that I am finally able to give them the care they deserve: care that is not hurried, not distracted by the ridiculous complexity of the health care system, and not driven by the need to see people in person to give care.  This means:

  1. I don’t ever have to “force” people to come to the office to answer questions.  This means that I will let people stay at home (or work) for most of the care for which I would have required an office visit in the past.
  2. I will be able to give time people deserve to really handle their problems
  3. I won’t have to stay busy to pay the bills, so I can take care of problems when they happen (or when they are still small), rather than having to make people wait to get answers
  4. Patients won’t get the run-around.  They will get answers.
  5. I won’t wait for patients to contact me to give them care.  I will regularly review their records to make sure care is up to date.
  6. I will help my patients get good care from the rest of the system.  Avoiding hospitalizations, emergency room visits, unnecessary tests, and unnecessary drugs takes time; I will have the time to do this for my patients.  This should more than make up for my monthly fee.

Continue reading “Questions and Answers”

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“This could be big,” he said after I told him about the company who wants me to cover their 100+ employees.  I pay him to give me the stark reality of things, but his optimism made me uncomfortable.  ”You’ve got to go for this.  I know you don’t feel ready for it yet, but this could really be huge for your business, and I don’t think you should pass this up.”

I sighed.  Yes, this is a victory of sorts (still only theory, not reality), but what if I can’t deliver?  What if I fail?

“You know,” a colleague told me during another phone conversation, “you are the buzz of the medical community right now.  We talked about you for half an hour at lunch today…and it was all good!”  He went on to use phrases like “our only hope,” and “the way out,” to describe the potential for my practice model.

“No,” I thought, “I am not Obi-Wan.  I’m not your only hope.”  I sighed.  I don’t want that kind of pressure on me before I even see my first patient.  What if I fail?

Even worse: what if I succeed?

One of the main things that separates good clinicians from the rest is the ability to think through contingencies.  When I order a test or prescribe a treatment I have to consider the possible outcomes: if the test shows X, then we do Y; if it shows not-X, then we do Z.  Or, here’s the plan if you get better on the medication, and here’s the plan if you don’t.  The more contingencies I can anticipate and plan for, the more direct the path to the ultimate destination: resolution (or management) of the problem.  I find that my experience in thinking through contingencies serves me well in my current job of building a new and innovative practice.

Continue reading “What If Success Sucks?”

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It seems both ironic and inevitable: I won’t be getting any more “meaningful use” checks. It’s not that I didn’t qualify for the money; I saw plenty of patients on Medicare and met all of the requirements. I was paid for my first year money without much hassle. The problem I am facing is this: I am probably going to be “opting out” of Medicare, and once I do that I will cease to exist as far as HHS is concerned, and they are the ones who write the “meaningful use” checks. No existence equals no money.

This is ironic because I have gotten famous for how well I’ve used electronic medical records, have written advice for physicians trying to qualify for “meaningful use,” and am esteemed enough to be often asked for my opinion on the subject (culminating in a presentation last year for CDC public health Grand Rounds).  I have spent much of the past 16 years disproving the myths that small practices couldn’t afford EMR, that EMR decreases profitability, or that they reduce quality of care.  We not only could afford EMR, we flourished, using it as a tool to increase both productivity and profitability.  Not to overstate the issue, but my practice (and others like it) paved the way for the existence of “meaningful use.”  I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing.

But, as fate would have it, I am leaving the practice in which I did all of this work and am starting a new practice with a different payment system.  Instead of charging for office visits or tests done in my office, I am charging a monthly “subscription” fee for access to my care and to the other resources I offer.  But there isn’t a Medicare code for a monthly subscription fee, and the rules of Medicare are such that, as far as I can tell, I cannot have the practice I intend to build and be listed as a Medicare provider.  This is the case even if I never charge Medicare for any of my services.

Regarding my status as a Medicare provider, there are three options:

  1. Accept Medicare as a “participating” provider – This means that I see Medicare patients and accept what they say I will be paid.  I bill CMS for my services, which are based on my “procedure codes.”  My main procedure is the office visit, but I can also bill for things like immunizations, lab tests, and office procedures.  The more procedures I bill for, the more I get paid, but I must justify this billing in my documentation or run the risk of being accused of fraud.
  2. Become a “non-Participating” Medicare provider - In this scenario, I am paid by the patient for the encounter and then they are reimbursed for what they paid me.  The choice of what I bill happens the same way, and I still must set fees based on what CMS tells me (although I can bill a little bit more than I would if I was a participating provider).  Billing is, once again, based on the documentation of the visit.
  3. “Opt out” of Medicare altogether - Opting out means that I am no longer in the Medicare database as a provider and won’t get paid by them at all.  Patients are free to come to me, but they must pay what I charge, and I set my fees based on what I think is best. Continue reading “Tough Hard Decision: What To Do About Medicare”
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“Doctor’s office; please hold.”

You’ll never hear that when you call me. Never. You’ll also never get an automated answering system (I’m just referring to office hours, of course. Evenings and weekends the phone goes to Google Voice. More on

that below.) We are also in the middle of a communication revolution. There are now so many other ways patients can contact me other than the telephone, the silly thing is almost becoming obsolete. I took amoment the other day just to go through all the various ways patients contact me.

Telephone

Still the most reliable fallback. Most synchronous form of communication: both parties willing and able to talk in real time. After hours, Google Voice (free) transcribes messages and texts them to my smart phone. As a rule, patients do not call my cell phone, although I’m not shy about giving out the number. Then again, those who have my cell number usually use it for…

Texting

At the moment, it’s just a few patients, but I anticipate more and more of them will partake as time goes on. It doesn’t happen very often, and so far it’s never been inappropriate. Med refill requests and pictures of kids’ rashes have been the mainstay so far. I like it. By it’s very nature, the people choosing to text me understand the limitations of synchronicity, ie, they don’t get bent out of shape if I don’t answer them right away, and they understand that it’s just for relatively minor issues. I also use it to communicate simple quick questions to specialists with all the same mutual understandings (minor issues only; response time unimportant).

Continue reading “Doctorology: Communication. It’s All Good”

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This is my new office. I signed the lease for this property yesterday – another big step in the process of getting my new practice off the ground.  I should feel good about this, shouldn’t I?  I’ve had people comment that I’ve gotten a whole lot accomplished in the 4 weeks since I’ve been off, but the whole thing is still quite daunting.  Yes, there are days I feel good about my productivity, and there are moments when I feel an evangelical zeal toward what I am doing, but there are plenty more moments where I stare this whole thing in the face and wonder what I am doing.

I walked through the office today with a builder to discuss what I want done with the inside; it quickly became obvious that there was a problem: I don’t know what I want done, and nobody can tell me what I should do.  Yes, I need a waiting area, at least one exam room, an office for me, a lab area, bathrooms, and place for my nurse, but since I don’t really know which of my ideas about the practice will work, I don’t know what my needs will truly be.  How much of my day will be spent with patients, how much will be doing online communication, and how much will be spent with my nurse?  I want a space for group education, but how many resources should I put toward that?  I also want a place to record patient education videos, but some of my “good ideas” just end up being wasted time, and I don’t know if this is one of them.

I come across the same problem when I am trying to choose computer systems.  I know that I want to do that differently: I want the central record to be the patient record, not what I record in the EMR.  I want patients to communicate with me via secure messaging and video chat, and I want to be able to put any information I think would be useful into their PHR.  So do I build a “lite” EMR product centered around the PHR, or do I use a standard EMR to feed the PHR product?  Do I use an EMR company’s “patient portal” product, or do I have a stand-alone PHR which is fed by the EMR?  I have lots of thoughts and ideas on this, but I don’t really know what will work until I start using it.

Continue reading “The Good Doctor Learns to Fly”

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After 18 years in private practice, many good, some not, I am making a very big change.  I am leaving my practice.

No, this isn’t my ironic way of saying that I am going to change the way I see my practice; I am really quitting my job.  The stresses and pressures of our current health care system become heavier, and heavier, making it increasingly difficult to practice medicine in a way that I feel my patients deserve.  The rebellious innovator (who adopted EMR 16 years ago) in me looked for “outside the box” solutions to my problem, and found one that I think is worth the risk.  I will be starting a solo practice that does not file insurance, instead taking a monthly “subscription” fee, which gives patients access to me.

I must confess that there are still a lot of details I need to work out, and plan on sharing the process of working these details with colleagues, consultants, and most importantly, my future patients.

Here are my main frustrations with the health care system that drove me to this big change:

  1. I don’t feel like I can offer the level of care I want for my patients. I am far too busy during the day to slow down and give people the time they deserve.  I have over 3000 patients in my practice, and most of them only come to me when there are problems, which bothers me because I’d rather work with them to prevent the problems in the first place.
  2. There’s a disconnect between my business and my mission.  I want to be a good doctor, but I also want to pay for my kids’ college tuition (and maybe get the windshield on the car fixed).  But the only way to make enough money is to see more patients in my office, making it hard to spend time with people in the office, or to handle problems on the phone.  I have done my best to walk the line between good care and good business, but I’ve grown weary under the burden of having to make this choice patient after patient.  Why is it that I would make more money if I was a bad doctor?  Why am I penalized for caring?
  3. The increased burden of non-patient issues added to the already difficult situation.  I have to comply with E/M coding for all of my notes.  I have to comply with “Meaningful Use” criteria for my EMR.  I have to practice defensive medicine to avoid lawsuits.  I have more and more paperwork, more drug formulary problems, more patients frustrated with consultants, and less time to do it all.  My previous post about burn-out was a prelude to this one; it was time to do something about my burn out: to drop out. Continue reading “Dropping Out”
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I was talking to a patient a few days ago who was raving about a local grocery store.

”They get it,” she said. ”They understand how to take care of their customers.”

It made me think about how far medicine has drifted away from the same idea. Ironically, despite the fact that our “customers” (people who pay us for our services) are seeking us so we can “take care of” them, we do a lousy job of taking care of our customers. It has been an obsession of mine since I started practice, but it has been something that has been increasingly difficult to accomplish. I now have to fight against the need to meet “meaningful use” criteria so that I can have time to make the record meaningful and useful to my patients. I have to fight against the need to conform to “medical home,” criteria so that I can make my practice the place my patients see as their ultimate medical haven.

The more the government and insurance industries push me toward focusing on my patients, the less time I have for my patients because of the need to meet criteria proving that I am caring for my patients. It’s a mess.

So I went back to my roots. What do I really think should be the rights of my patients? Here is a list that I made:

Patients have the following rights:

The right to have access to care when it’s needed
This does not mean the care is done in the office either. It can be done over the phone or via computer.
The schedule of the office should accommodate the patients’ needs as much as is reasonable to expect.
The right to have care that is convenient
They should not have to wait to be seen or wait on the phone to be heard

Continue reading “Patient Rights”

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Rob Lamberts, MDLipitor can destroy your liver.

Back surgery can leave you paralyzed.

People who take Chantix might kill themselves.

You may never wake up from a simple surgery.

These statements are all true.  They also are very confusing to many of my patients when I am prescribing drugs or recommending surgery.  What should they do when they hear such bad things about drugs, surgeries, or procedures?  How much do they risk when they follow my advice?

It’s a hard world out there, with the attorneys advertising on TV about drugs my patients have taken, with the websites devoted to the harms brought on by a drug or an immunization, with Dr. Oz and other seemingly smart people telling them things that are contrary to my advice, and with friends and neighbors who give dire warnings about the dangers of following my advice.

There are so many voices out there competing with mine, that I sometimes spend more time reassuring than I do anything else.  A doctor in our practice believes that Dr. Oz ought to issue a statement to doctors whenever he voices another controversial opinion as gospel fact so that we can be ready with our counter-arguments.

What can doctors do?  We can’t quiet the other voices that speak against us.  In truth, those voices have an important role in preventing us from becoming comfortable and dogmatic in our beliefs.  So how do I combat such a heavy current against our advice?

By talking about seat belts.

Seat belts can kill you, you know.  You can be trapped inside your car by your seat belt and not be able to get out before your car explodes.  It’s not a fable; it can really happen.

You may be sealing your fate to die terribly every time you buckle your seat belt.

Continue reading “Buckle Up”

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Contributing Editor










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