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.
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?
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.
What is “Patient Engagement?” It sounds like a season of “The Bachelor” where a doctor dates hot patients. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was. After all, patient engagement is hot; it’s the new buzz phrase for health wonks. There was a even an entire day at the recent HIMSS conference dedicated to “Patient engagement.” I think the next season of “The Bachelor” should feature a wonk at HIMSS looking for a wonkettes to love.
Here’s how the Internets define “Patient engagement”:
The Get Well Network (with a smiley face) calls it: “A national health priority and a core strategy for performance improvement.”
Leonard Kish refers to it as “The Blockbuster Drug of the Century” (it narrowly beat out Viagra) – HT to Dave Chase.
Steve Wilkins refers to it as “The Holy Grail of Health Care” (it also narrowly beat out Viagra) – HT to Kevin MD.
On the HIMSS Patient Engagement Day, the following topics were discussed:
-How to make Patients Your Partners in Satisfying Meaningful Use Stage 2 Objectives; Case Studies in Patient Engagement, session #64; -Review Business Cases for Implementing a Patient-Centered Communication Strategy and Building Patient 2.0, session #84;: and -Engaging People in Health Through Consumer-Facing Devices and Tools, session #102.
So then, “patient engagement” is:
-a grail (although I already have a grail)
-a “meaningful use” objective
-something that requires a business case
-something that requires “consumer-facing devices and tools” (I already have one of those too).
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.
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. Continue reading…
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…
I was furious. I went to the office on Sunday to see what work the electrician had done (and to discuss decor issues with my wife), and my office was deserted. The inspection was supposed to happen on Monday, allowing me to get furniture in the office and see patients on Tuesday. A text message back from my contractor said that the electrician would be in on Monday and the inspection would happen on Tuesday. Apparently he didn’t realize I was so ambitious (read: crazy) to see patients so soon after construction was completed. Apparently my panic wasn’t obvious to him.
On Sunday I broke with my usually placid demeanor (read: codependent) and expressed my emotions on the issue quite clearly. Many panicked calls from supervisors and electricians later (read: effusive apologies and promises to fix things), and the reality had not changed: inspectors would not be coming until Tuesday, and so my opening, already a month after I planned, would wait one more day. What a terrible way to start my new practice: canceling appointments on my first day.
Then I realized something: I don’t need an office to do my job. One of the things I am trying to overturn is the practice of requiring all care to be conducted in the exam room. Why can’t people talk to their doctor on the phone? Why can’t they email questions? Why not videoconferencing for visits? Why not texting me a picture of the rash (depending on the location, of course)? Why hold my expertise hostage to the ransom of an office visit? So then what’s the big deal of not having an office?