A few weeks ago, The Health Care Blog published a truly outstanding commentary by Jeff Goldsmith, on why practice redesign isn’t going to solve the primary care shortage. In the post, Goldsmith explains why a proposed model of high-volume primary care practice — having docs see even more patients per day, and grouping them in pods — is unlikely to be accepted by either tomorrow’s doctors or tomorrow’s boomer patients. He points out that we are replacing a generation of workaholic boomer PCPs with “Gen Y physicians with a revealed preference for 35-hour work weeks.” (Guilty as charged.) Goldsmith ends by predicting a “horrendous shortfall” of front-line clinicians in the next decade.
Now, not everyone believes that a shortfall of PCPs is a serious problem.
However, if you believe, as I do, that the most pressing health services problems to solve pertain to Medicare, then a shortfall of PCPs is a very serious problem indeed.
So serious that maybe it’s time to consider the unthinkable: encouraging clinicians to become Medicare PCPs by aligning the job with a 35 hour work week.
I can already hear all clinicians and readers older than myself harrumphing, but bear with me and let’s see if I can make a persuasive case for this.
I’ve been going about this all wrong.
It’s not my dumping of the payment system so I can focus on care over codes, my use of technology to connect better with patients, or my vision of the “collaborative record” that is wrong. It’s the fact that I am doing this without my most important resource: my patients.
I realized this while driving in to work this past week. My first patient was a tech-savvy guy I’ve known for a long time. Not only does he know me, and knows more than me about technology, he also is a regular reader of my blog (bless his heart)…and he still chose to switch to my practice! So I was looking forward to running some of my ideas by him to see if my thoughts have strayed to the land of silliness (which they often do) or if I am actually onto something. This line of thought led me to think about collaborating with him to work on my IT vision, since he does work for an IT company. My line of thought then careened into the brick wall of the obvious: why just him? I’ve been getting suggestions and offers for help from many of my patients, who are clearly intrigued by my direction and desirous to lend their expertise on the project. So why not involve any of my patients who want to be part of this project?
Recently I was asked if SaaS/Cloud computing is appropriate for small practice EHR hosting.
I responded: “SaaS in general is good. However, most SaaS is neither private nor secure. Current regulatory and compliance mandates require that you find a cloud hosting firm which will indemnify you against privacy breeches caused by security issues in the SaaS hosting facility. Also, SaaS is only as good as the internet connections of the client sites. We’ve had a great deal of experience with ‘last mile’ issues.”
It’s official. The road sign clearly welcomed me here. I guess all business start-ups have to go through this town (Hell).
What? No bravado? No chest pounding about how my ideas will change health care while making patients smell as springtime fresh? Nope. None of that. It’s hard to get excited about ideas when only money pays the bills.
Having now left the safe confines of my leftover earnings from my old practice, I am now supposed to be self-supporting. Two big things have caused this to not go as smoothly as I have planned:
- My construction took twice as long as I expected.
- I have yet to find a computer system that doesn’t make me want to pound on my desk and wantonly overuse the word “inconceivable.”
I’m sure you get a lot of hate mail, especially from folks in my profession, so when you got this letter from me you probably assumed it was more of the same. Let me reassure you: I am not one of those docs. I do think patient privacy is important, and actually found you quite useful when facing unwanted probing questions from family members. I believe the only way for patients to really open up to docs like me is to have a culture of respect for privacy, and you are a large part of that trust I can enjoy. Yeah, there was trust before you were around, but that was before the internet, and before people used words like “social media,” and “data mining.”
But there have been things done in your name that I’ve recently come in contact with that make me conclude that either A: you are very much misunderstood, or B: you have a really dark side.
It’s been a month since I started my new practice. We are up to nearly 150 patients now, and aside from the cost to renovate my building, our revenue has already surpassed our spending. The reason this is possible is that a cash-pay practice in which 100% of income is paid up front has an incredibly low overhead. My admitted ineptitude at financial complexity has forced me to simplify our finances as much as possible. This means that the accounting is “so simple even a doctor can do it,” which means I don’t need any front-office support staff. I don’t send out bills because nobody owes me anything. It’s just me and my nurse, focusing our energy on jury-rigging a computerized record so we can give good care.
Our attention to care has not gone unnoticed. Yesterday I got a call from a local TV news reporter who wanted to do a story on what I am doing. Apparently she heard rumor “from someone who was in the hospital.” I was the talk of the newsroom, yet I’ve hardly done any marketing; in fact, I am trying to limit the rate of our growth so I can focus on building a system that won’t collapse under a higher patient volume. I explained this to the disappointed reporter why I was not interested in the interview by telling her that I left my old practice because I needed to get off of the hamster wheel of healthcare; the last thing I want to do now is to build my own hamster wheel.
For the record: I am a geek. I love technology. I adopted EMR when all the cool kids were using paper. Instead of loitering in the “in” doctors lounge making eyes at the nurses, I was writing clinical content and making my care more efficient. I was getting “meaningful use” out of my EMR even when nobody paid me to do it.
But now who’s laughing? While they are slaving away trying to get their “meaningful use” checks, I’ve moved on to greener pastures, laughing at their sorry butts! It’s just like my mom promised it would be. Thanks mom.
Really, for the record, I am not so much a technology fan as a “systems” guy. I like finding the right tool for the job, building systems that make it easier to do what I want, and technology is perfect for that job. I am not so much a fan of technology, but what technology can do. Technology is not the goal, it is the best tool to reach many of my goals. There are two things that measure the effectiveness of a tool:
1. Is the tool the right one for the job?
2. Is the person using the tool properly?
So, when answering the question I posed at the end of my last post, what constitutes a “good” EMR, I have to use these criteria.
I have been taking a vacation from blogging as I try to get through a very busy academic quarter. But my last blog, “My Son the Electrician” elicited a lot of comments and I have always wanted to follow up. And today I see that the Chicago Sun Times has generously quoted me, in particular noting how I liken physicians to entrepreneurs. Lest anyone get the wrong impression, let me briefly explain what I mean.
Like entrepreneurs, physicians launch their careers by making large investments – up to ten years of post-graduate training. Such investments do not come with a guarantee. Entrepreneurial physicians – those who own their own practices or work in small partnerships, must build their practices and maintain relationships with other physicians. All successful physicians, whether entrepreneurs or employees, enjoy personally and professional satisfying careers and comfortable, sometimes more than comfortable, incomes. But only physicians entrepreneurs have ultimate responsibility for their practices and their patients.
It feels like part of me is dying. I am losing something that has been a part of me for nearly 20 years.
I bought in to the idea of electronic records in the early 90′s and was enthusiastic enough to implement in my practice in 1996. My initial motivation was selfish: I am not an organized person by nature (distractible, in case you forgot), and computers do much of the heavy lifting in organization. I saw electronics as an excellent organization system for documents. Templates could make documentation quicker and I could keep better track of labs and x-rays. I could give better care, and that was a good enough reason to use it.
But the EMR product we bought, as it came out of the box, was sorely lacking. Instead of making it easier to document I had to use templates generated by someone else – someone who obviously was not a physician (engineers, I later discovered). So we made a compromise: since it was easier to format printed data, we took that data and made a printed template.
I am not sure if my lack of blogging is a good sign or a bad one. It’s been a week and a half since I started my new practice and I finally am getting this chance to come up for air. It’s been an über hectic and very draining time, but I am happy to report that the end of the week was significantly better than the beginning.
Here are some things I am learning.
1. Starting a business is really, really hard
I did my best to make my business as simple as possible, mainly because I understand my own deficiencies when it comes to business-related activities. Of course, being in a leadership role of a practice for the past 16 years helps me understand incredibly confusing concepts like accounts receivable, budgets, paying bills, and avoiding going to jail for spending all the collections on lottery tickets and reporting it as “research.” I purposefully designed the business to require as little accounting as possible, and in general I think I accomplished that. People come in to see me, pay me by swiping their card on the nifty card-reader on my iPhone, and I email them the receipt. That’s not the hard part (aside from people touching the “skip signature” button with their hand while they are signing).
The hardest part of starting a business for me is knowing what overhead items are necessary and what are not. Building the office took a month longer than I expected and cost twice as much. Yet I signed “yes” to all of the things that added cost. Some of them were necessary, like doing the things needed to comply with ADA, compliance with electrical code, and having furniture. But where to draw the line? I want the office to send a message of “professional, yet welcoming,” which means it can’t look cheap but doesn’t look posh either. I want the office to be consistent with my logo, a door opening that says “come on in,” and “welcome.” But everything adds cost, and mounting cost is tough when delay in opening means I am earning nothing.
Everyone is willing to give advice, but most of the advice given has little foundation in my reality. People say “it will all work out,” or “you’ll do great,” reassuring me that I don’t have to fret about things. It’s as if I can sit back and relax while things “work out.” The reality is that the reason they will work out is that I will spend most of my waking hours (and some while I’m not awake) working, worrying, thinking about details, and trying to plan for a very uncertain future. Continue reading…