A patient calls or emails me with a problem. I talk with them over the course of a few days, using whatever form of communication works best. Eventually, they need to come to the office to be seen – either for something needing to be done in-person (examination, procedure, or lab test), or because of the advantages of face-to-face communication. At the visit, I not only deal with one problem, but there are other issues needing to be addressed. Finally, after the visit, follow-up on the problem continues until it is either resolved, or at least is not causing much trouble.
So how do I document that?
In the past I would’ve had a clear structure for the “office visit” and separate “encounters” for the documentation of the communication done outside of the office. The latter would be done largely with narrative of the conversation, and some direct quotes from the patient. The former, the “office visit” would include:
- A re-telling of the story of the “chief complaint” and what’s been happening that caused this encounter to be necessary.
- A sifting through other symptoms and past-problems to see if there is any information hidden there that may be useful.
- A documentation of past problems (already in the record) to support the thought process documented later in the visit.
- An overview of the physical exam, again to support the decisions made as a result of the visit.
- A discussion of my thoughts on what I think is going on.
- A telling of my plan on how to deal with this.
- A list of any advice given, tests ordered, medications changed, prescriptions written, and follow-up as the details of that plan.
- A signature at the end, attesting to the validity of what is contained in the note.
But here’s the problem: it’s not real. I don’t make all of my decisions based on the visit, and the patient’s story is not limited to what they tell me. Details may be left out because they are forgotten, questions aren’t asked, or things just haven’t happened yet. This signed and sealed unit of care, represented as a full story, actually represents only fragments of the story, of many stories actually, and only as a moment on the continuum of the patient’s care.
It has been nearly 6 months since I started my new practice, since I took the jump (or, more accurately, was pushed off the ledge) into a brave new world. It seems very distant, like I should get Shirley MacLaine or Gwyneth Paltrow to help me channel my old sad self. It is tempting.
I have a vague recollection, a memory shrouded in mist, where I pondered what seemed like a radical question: What would a health record look like if my only concern was patient care? This was a radical question because in my previous life I was an electronic health record aficionado. I was good at EMR, which meant that I was really good at finding work-arounds:
- How can I work around the requirements for bloated documents and produce records that are actually useful? The goal of records in that previous life was to justify billing, not for patient care.
- How can I work around the financial necessity to keep my schedule unreasonably full and keep my visits unreasonably short and still give good care?
- How can I work around the fact that I am paid better when people are sick and still try to keep them healthy?
- How can I work around the increased amount of my time devoted to qualifying for “meaningful use” and still give care that is meaningful?
Computers were all about automating the drudgery, organizing the chaos, and carving out a sliver of time so I could spend the extra minutes needed to give the care I wanted to give. I was using them to give good care despite the real nature of the medical record: a vehicle for billing.
But that was my past life. Now I no longer have to worry about a Medicare audit (and the looming threat of an accusation of “fraud” for simply not obeying the impossible documentation rules). I no longer have to keep my office full and my patients sick enough to pay the bills. I am actually rewarded for handing problems early, for communicating well, and for keeping patients healthy and happy, as it keeps them paying the monthly subscription fee.
Ironically, in asking the question, what would a health record look like if my only concern was patient care, I was really asking the question: What does “meaningful use” of the record really look like?
Now this question is no longer a hypothetical; it is real.
Hi. It’s me again. No, I’ve been doing fine; my writing slow-down is not due to calamity, catastrophe, apostrophe, or even syndactyly. I’ve been working hard, working like a dog.
So, what’s been so all-consuming that I can’t sit down and write? My computer system. I know it may sound nerdy and lame, but I’ve been putting every ounce of my creative energy into building a system. It’s driven by two main things: trying to give the best care I can, and doing so while avoiding personal bankruptcy. Fear of the latter is strong motivation. So I’ve been pouring myself into this task like nothing I’ve done before. My goal is to build a system that will:
1. Organize information. My care will only be as good as the information I have. It should be presented in a way that gives me just the right amount of information, with the ability to get more when I need it.
2. Cope with the flood of incoming information. Take the piles of communications coming in and route it to the proper storage place, use the information to make decisions, communicate it with the patients, and decide on follow-up. This is an enormously difficult task.
3. Integrate with every communication tool possible. Most doctors don’t do this because they rely on office visits for income, and that hinders the care they give. Communication is care, and I want to have good communication that is enlightened by good information.
4. Create a shared medical record with my patients. I am convinced that my patients will get the best care if they have access to their information. But this needs to be done in a way that is both simple and secure. I want “one stop shopping” for people to communicate or look at their records.
5. Keep my books. I don’t want to go bankrupt and don’t want to go to jail for keeping disorganized books. It’s possible to get freed from the fear of Medicare audits, but not from IRS audits.
6. Organize the future. There are far too many missed opportunities for care. Integrated task-management (shared between patient and their care team) is my goal.
7. Grow with me. If I accomplish 1-6, my practice will grow. I don’t want that growth to outpace my system.
So far I’ve been focusing on 1, 2, and 5, with eyes on the rest. I’ve made great progress, but there’s much more needing to be done. My ultimate goal of this is to build working prototypes of both this practice model and the software that will enable it to be more than just a side-show, an alternative for doctors who want to escape. I believe that this is truly better care. It is focused on what the patient wants: to be healthy and to spend as little time thinking about their health care as possible. It’s working so far, but it can be much more than it is now.
This past week, the NYT New Old Age Blog featured a post about me and my practice. Titled “Walking Away from Medicare,” it describes my decision to opt-out of Medicare and create a different kind of geriatric practice.
It has generated quite a lot of comments: 163 at my latest count. Most of them judge me pretty harshly. It seems that many people feel that I’m doing this for the money. And that I don’t care about society or older people.
Of course, if you know me or if you’ve been reading this blog, then you’ll know that nothing could be further from the truth. My practice is fairly small, in part because my goal in having this practice was to have a way to keep working with patients and families, while having the flexibility to pursue my other professional interests. Since I started the practice, I’ve spent most of my time writing for this blog, learning about the worlds of digital health and healthcare innovation, and thinking about how we can teach geriatrics directly to caregivers.
Yeah, I am recovering…doing a lot better, actually. Things are tough, but they are a lot better since I left my destructive relationship with Medicare, Medicaid, and insurance companies. I’ve had to learn how to manage my own money (now that I can’t count on them to bail me out any more), but things are looking a lot better. I am beginning to see how much better it will be to be on my own.
The key was when I realized that the system wasn’t going to change no matter how much I accommodated its unreasonable requests. I felt that if I only did what it asked of me, however unreasonable, it would stop hurting me and, more importantly, my patients. But I’ve come to see that all the promises to take care of me and my patients were written in sand, and that it couldn’t resist the temptation to cheat on me. I tried to do what it asked of me, but as time went by I couldn’t take how dirty it made me feel.
I want to believe it was sincere when it told me it wanted to change. I think at its core, it wants to help patients and doesn’t want to go on those spending binges. But no matter how sincere the promises sounded, I was always left alone as it threw its money at every sexy treatment, procedure, or drug that walked by. Then it would go off on tirades about how much I spent and that I didn’t do enough to keep to our budget. It was always my fault. I think it’s just easier to pass blame on others than it is to do the hard things necessary to really change. To be honest, I think it was terrified at how much real change would hurt.
But I can’t sit around and wait for the system to change any more. My patients were getting less and less of my time, and I was getting to the breaking point. I know there are a lot of other doctors who are willing to do whatever the system asks, but I can’t sit around and watch it self-destruct. It’s not what’s best for the system, for us doctors, and for our patients. Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone is to let them self-destruct and pray that they finally take responsibility and learn the hard lessons. I just hope that happens soon.
This, apparently, is a map of my mind. It’s a little shocking to find out that my mind looks like a sea creature, a bug, or perhaps a vegetable. Actually, “Rob’s mind” and “vegetable” are often used in the same sentence.
Someone suggested to me that I may benefit from mind mapping. I don’t know how to describe it, but I think spatially; I see things abstractly as if I am pulling up from the ground and getting an aerial view of things. I write that way, I solve problems that way, I even play music that way. Maybe it’s tapping on the right side of the brain that is about nuances or about how things relate to other things in proximity or direction. Like I said: it’s hard to describe.
Anyhow, I was thinking about task-management with my patients, wondering what’s the best way to think about it and what is the best design for a system helping with this. Task management is perhaps the most important thing in health care that’s never talked about. Maybe that’s because it makes doctors feel less special, reducing our “magical” knowledge and “miracle” cures to algorithms and checklists. Personally, I take great comfort in systems because they assure me I am not going to forget important things (like setting a reminder to take the trash out on Sunday and Wednesday nights).
It feels dangerous to write this, but…my practice seems to be working.
I am now running and hiding from lightning bolts, meteors, or stray arrows shot in the air by a Scottish soldier. I am also expecting a raid on my office by the IRS, CDC, and BBC tomorrow morning. I don’t know why I wrote that.
But as afraid as I am to admit it, the thing that was once just a good idea is now actually growing and improving. We are up to about 300 patients (with a big infusion when a local TV network did a story on my practice) and have enough money to pay bills without a visit from uncle bouncy. While we’ve started to discuss when we will hire another staff person (probably a nurse), neither me nor my nurse Jamie (may her name be ever blessed) feel overwhelmed at this point. We can handle this volume, which speaks well for the future when we actually have a fully-working system.
The past few weeks have been totally consumed by my need to have an underlying system of organization. After fighting valiantly against the idea for the first two months, I succumbed to the necessity of building my own IT system and have been seeing the many benefits of that decision. Despite being totally obsessed with how data tables connect and whether I’ve left a parenthesis off of a script I’ve written, I now have a place to put data, have a pretty decent task management system, have an integrated address book, and have discussed integration with my phone system vendor, my secure messaging developer, and a lab order/result integration vendor. I’ve also found some strong local tech talent who gets what I am doing and yet doesn’t simply see the market potential for my software.
The reality is, my whole focus is on the practice model, and that model seems to work. As my business and medical care management systems click into place and become more functional, growing the practice should not be a problem. We continue to get several new patients signing up every day, and now the reluctant spouses of establish patients are joining (which is a very good sign – for both my practice and for their marriages).
Let me appease the gods and state clearly that this is by no means a sure thing. There are many, many things that could go wrong. A successful start-up requires not only a good idea and hard work; it also needs requires luck (or at least to avoid bad luck). I could get cancer, my building could burn down, or our city could be overrun by a mob of psychotic llamas. We all know the llama apocalypse is happening; it’s just a question of when, not if. So I accept the fact that I am, to a great extent, in the hands of the fates (and llamas).
There was a hole in the wall of our bathroom that was a painful reminder of a bad encounter with a plumber. Yes, that hole has been there about a year, and it has been on my to-d0 list for the duration, daring me to show if I inherited any of the fix-it genes I got from my father. Why not hire someone to come fix it? I also got (as I mentioned in my last post) dutch genes, which scream at me whenever I reach for my wallet. So this hole was giving me shame in surround-sound.
I attempted to fix it the hole last year, even going to the degree of asking for a router table for my birthday. Since there was previously no way to get to this all-important access to the shower fixture without cutting through the sheetrock, I decided I would take a board, cut it larger than the hole, then use the router to make a rabbet cut so the panel would fit snuggly. Up until then, I thought a rabbet cut was a surgery to keep the family pet population under control, but my vocabulary was suddenly expanded to include words like rabbet, roundover, chamfer, dado and round nose. Unfortunately, my success only came in the realm of vocabulary, as I was not able to successfully master the rabbet cut without making the wood become a classic example of the early american gouge woodworking style.
I am not sure why, but something inside me told me today was the day to give this another shot, and to my shock (and that of my family), I was successful!
This home project is actually a late comer to the DIY party I’ve been holding for the past few months.
- Don’t like your practice? Build your own from scratch!
- Don’t like the health care system, build a new one!
My latest DIY venture is in an area I swore I’d not go: I’m building my own record system.
It’s been a long time since I wrote a post. My life, you see, is incredibly dull and boring. There has been so little to write about that I’ve been at a loss.
No, actually that’s a load of crap. It’s become a fantasy of mine to have such boredom. In reality, my life is as un-boring as it could be. It’s like the part of a story where everything is in flux, where little decisions have huge consequences, and where the inflection point between a comedy and tragedy is located.
So how’s my new practice going? In some ways things are going about as well as they could. My patients are amazed when I answer their emails or (even more surprisingly) answer the phone. ”Hello, this is Dr. Lamberts,” I say. This usually results in a long pause, followed by a confused and timid voice saying something like, “well…uh…I was expecting to get Jamie.” Yet I am often able to deal with their problems quickly and efficiently, forgoing the usual message from Jamie to get to the root of their problem. It’s amazingly efficient to answer the phone.
Financially, the practice has been in the black since the first month, and continues to grow, albeit slowly. The reason for the slow growth is not, as many would predict, the lack of a market for a practice like mine. It’s also not that I am so busy at 250 patients that growth is difficult. In truth, when we aren’t rapidly adding new patients, the work load is nowhere near overwhelming for just me and my nurse. In that sense I’ve proved concept: that it’s not unreasonable to think I can handle 500, and even 1000 patients with the proper support staff and system in place.
Which brings us to the area of conflict, the crisis point of this story: the system I have in place. The hard part for me has been that I have not been able to find tools to help me organize my business so it can run efficiently.
What is the path forward for physicians who want to remain in private practice, outside the constraints of health system employment? How will the environment change and what new demands will that place on practices and physicians? What follows are the observations of one industry-watcher who has worked on all sides of health care, but who now spends most his time focused on the interests of those who pay for it. No crystal ball, but several trends are clear.
There are now concrete signs that health care’s purchasers are exhausted and seeking new solutions, that a competitive marketplace is emerging and getting increasing traction. As they abandon ineffective approaches, the paradigm that has dominated the industry for the past 50 years will be upended. The financial pressure felt by buyers will transfer to the supply side health industry that has come to take ever more money for granted.
For decades, fee-for-service payment, inclusive health plan networks, and a lack of quality, safety and cost transparency have been enforced by health industry influence over policy, effectively neutralizing the power of market forces.
Without market pressure, physicians have felt little need to understand their own performance relative to that of their peers. The variation of physician practice patterns within specialties has been high, with some physicians’ “optimizing their revenue opportunities” by veering wildly away from evidence-based practice. Even so, until recently in this dysfunctional environment, it has been nearly impossible to identify high and low performers.