Not accustomed to visiting hospital executive suites, I took my seat in the waiting room somewhat warily.
Seated across from me was a handsome man in a well-tailored three-piece suit, whose thoroughly professional appearance made me – in my rumpled white coat, sheaves of dog-eared paper bulging from both pockets – feel out of place.
Within a minute, an administrative secretary came out and escorted him into one of the offices. Exhausted from a long call shift and lulled by the quiet, I started to doze off. Soon roused by the sound of my own snoring, I stared and looked about.
That was when I spotted the document on an adjacent chair. Its title immediately caught my eye: “How to Discourage a Doctor.”
It’s a strange business we are in.
I can freeze a couple of warts in less than a minute and send a bill to a patient’s commercial insurance for much more money than for a fifteen minute visit to change their blood pressure medication.
I can see a Medicaid or Medicare patient for five minutes or forty-five, and up until now, because I work for a Federally Qualified Health Center, the payment we actually receive is the same.
I can chat briefly with a patient who comes in for a dressing change done by my nurse, quickly make sure the wound and the dressing look okay and charge for an office visit. But I cannot bill anything for spending a half hour on the phone with a distraught patient who just developed terrible side effects from his new medication and whose X-ray results suggest he needs more testing.
As a primary care physician I get dozens of reports every day, from specialists, emergency rooms, the local Veterans’ clinic and so on, and everybody expects me to go over all these reports with a fine-toothed comb.
A specialist will write “I recommend an angiogram”, and we have to call his office to make sure if that means he ordered it, or that he wants us to order it.
An emergency room doctor orders a CT scan to rule out a blood clot in someone’s lung and gets a verbal reading by the radiologist that there is no clot. But the final CT report, dictated after the emergency room doctor’s shift has ended, suggests a possible small lung cancer.
Did anyone at the ER deal with this, or is it up to me to contact the patient and arrange for followup testing? All of this takes time, but we cannot bill for it.
Most people are aware these days that procedures are reimbursed at a higher rate than “cognitive work”, but many patients are shocked to hear that doctors essentially cannot bill for any work that isn’t done face to face with a patient. This fact, not technophobia, is probably the biggest reason why doctors and patients aren’t emailing, for example.