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Patient Access to Medical Services Varies by Individual Physician’s Will to Fight Insurance Companies

American healthcare reform debates are focused on strategies to provide “access” to medical services for all. Lack of insurance (or under-insurance) seems to be the primary focus, as it is falsely assumed that coverage provides access. Unfortunately, the situation is far more complicated.

Once a person has health insurance, there is no guarantee that they will receive the medical services that they need. Not because their plan is insufficiently robust, but because the roadblocks for approval of services (provided in the plans) are so onerous that those providing the service often give up before they receive insurance authorization. In my experience, whether or not the patient gets the service, test or procedure that they require often depends on the individual will and determination of their physician. And that’s something we need to talk about.

Take for example, admission to an inpatient rehabilitation facility. Brain-injured patients aren’t much different than those with broken bones. We all know that bones need to be set (or surgically repaired) right away so that they will heal correctly. The brain is very similar – once injured, it needs to be rehabilitated in an intensive, multi-disciplinary environment at the earliest chance for it to achieve its best healing. Nevertheless, insurance companies regularly deny brain injury rehab to patients in the critical healing time frame. They will approve nursing home care for them, but not the intensive cognitive rehabilitation that they need, unless the rehab physician fights an epic authorization battle that can take 10 days or more to overturn the denial of services!  Imagine if your orthopedist had to beg, lobby, and testify for 10 days to fix your broken hip (while the insurance company simply approved you go to a nursing home)? Would he or she be willing to do this? What would happen to your hip in the mean time?

The “prior authorization” process for imaging studies and non-formulary medications is also designed to wear down the providers and passively deny services to patients, thereby saving costs for the insurers. Patients don’t realize that getting an MRI might mean an hour of automated phone system “hell” for their physician, waiting to speak to an insurance customer service rep with an algorithm that determines whether or not the patient is eligible for the service – unrelated to the physician’s judgment or the particulars of the patient case. In the average American primary care practice, an estimated 20 hours per week is spent by physician and staff, attempting to secure insurance approval for necessary tests and medications.  Will your physician have the endurance to prevail? That might be the difference in diagnosing your cancer early or not.

“Oh,” but the insurance companies say, “we had to put these bumps in the road to prevent over-testing and abuse of the system.” I agree that there are some bad actors who should be identified and stopped. Think of the phony durable medical equipment providers, bilking Medicare and private insurers by prescribing unnecessary and expensive wheelchairs, scooters, and other devices. These bad apples are rare, but because of them – all the “good guys” are being hen-pecked to death just to get a walker for a patient with multiple sclerosis.

Unfortunately, there is no incentive for the private insurers to lift the pre-authorization burdens from the “good guy” physicians. Therefore, this will probably have to be achieved through legislation. With big data, it should be fairly easy to identify extreme provider outliers – and have their practices reviewed. For the rest of us, our pattern of judicious prescription of tests, services, and procedures should win us a break from the daily grind of begging, wheedling, and cajoling payers to allow us to get our individual patients what they need, every single time we order something. Until this freedom to practice medicine is achieved, true access to healthcare will not simply be a matter of having health insurance, it will be whether or not your physician has the will to fight for your needs. A “good doctor” has to be more than an excellent diagnostician these days – she must be a savvy, health insurance regulatory navigator and relentless patient advocate.  Keep that in mind as you choose your next physician!

All Physicians Should Engage In Pharmaceutical Whack-A-Mole: Please Follow Physiatry’s Lead

Medical school prepares physicians to prescribe medications for prevention and treatment of disease, but little to no time is spent teaching something just as important: de-prescribing. In our current system of auto-refills, e-prescriptions, and mindless “check box” EMR medication reconciliation, patients may continue taking medications years after their original prescriber intended them to stop. There is no doubt that many Americans are over-medicated, and the problem compounds itself as we age. Although “no-no” lists for Seniors (a tip of the hat to the American Geriatrics Society “Beers List”) have been published and promoted, many elderly Americans are prescribed medicines known to be of likely harm to them.

You may be surprised to learn that one medical specialty has taken advanced steps to address this problem. Physiatry (also known as Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation or PM&R) is a national leader in pain management education, and is the author and promoter of  the majority of continued medical education (CME) courses on reducing opioid prescribing in favor of alternative pain management strategies. But did you also know that most patients who are admitted to an inpatient rehabilitation facility (IRF) are tested on their capability to correctly administer their own medications before they are discharged home?

The MedBox test provides a validated cognitive performance assessment of whether or not an individual can correctly distribute multiple prescription medications into weekly pill boxes as directed on the containers. This is a short video of how the test works, demonstrated by some occupational therapists having a good time with it. In one fell swoop, this test checks vision, reading comprehension, pharmaceutical knowledge, manual dexterity, attention, and short term memory.

This test is very helpful in picking up potential misunderstandings in how prescription meds are to be taken, and identifying cognitive deficits that might preclude accurate self-administration of prescription meds at home. One of our main goals in rehab is to make sure that patients have the skills, assistance, and equipment necessary to thrive at home, so that they can remain hospital-free for as long as possible. To that end, we feel strongly that limiting medications to those only truly necessary, as well as making sure that patients can demonstrate safe-use of their medications (or have a caregiver who can do this for them), can reduce hospital readmission rates, falls, unwanted drug side-effects and accidental drug-drug interactions.

In addition to MedBox testing, physiatrists invite hospital pharmacists to join their weekly patient team conferences. While we discuss patient progress in physical, occupational, and speech therapies, we also review nursing assessments of medication self-administration competency, and ask our pharmacist(s) which medications can potentially be stopped or decreased that week. Rehab physicians (familiar with patient health status, goals, and current complaints) and pharmacists together come up with stop dates and taper regimens at these weekly meetings.

Part of the reason why inpatient rehabilitation has been so successful at reducing hospital readmission rates, in my view, is that we are committed to pharmaceutical whack-a-mole. “Test-driving” patient competency at medication self-administration, in the setting of responsible de-prescribing in a monitored clinical environment, is a highly valuable (though sadly under-reported) benefit of rehabilitation medicine. I hope that my medical and surgical peers will join us physiatrists in combating some of the patient harms that are passively occurring in our healthcare system designed to add, but not subtract, diagnoses and treatments.

Words Of Wisdom For Doctors Interested In Trying Locum Tenens Work

I receive a significant amount of email in response to my blog posts about locum tenens work. Curious colleagues (from surgeons to internists and emergency medicine physicians) ask for insider insight into this “mysterious business” of being a part-time or traveling physician. I am always happy to respond individually, but suddenly realized that I should probably post these conversations on my blog so that all can benefit.

The most common question I receive is: How do the agencies compare with one another? Followed closely by: Where should I start? There is no online rating system for this industry, and so grade-focused physicians (taught to value performance ratings) feel at a loss as to where to begin. One day I hope we’ll have a locum tenens quality website, but for now  I can offer you my N=1, “case study” experience.

I’ve been doing hospital-based, locum tenens work for 6 years in the field of inpatient rehabilitation medicine. I have accepted 14 assignments through the following agencies:

CompHealth, Weatherby Healthcare, Jackson & Coker, Medical Doctor Associates, LocumTenens.com, and All Star Recruiting

I have had extensive conversations with recruiters at the following agencies, but have not ended up taking an assignment through them:

Staff Care, Delta, Onyx, Barton Associates, and Farr Health

I have summarized my experiences in this table:

Agency Name Number of Assignments Quality of Client (Hospital or Employer) Quality of Recruiter(s) Salary Provided (percent of what I would consider standard)
Comp Health 4 B,B,C,C A 80-100%
Weatherby Healthcare 3 A,B,C A 85-100%
Jackson & Coker 3 A,C,D C 85%
Medical Doctor Associates* 1 A+ A 100%
LocumTenens.com* 2 A,D B 50-100%
All Star Recruiting* 1 B- A 150%
Self-Negotiated 3 A,B,D N/A 175%

*These agencies use VMS systems.

These “data” are highly subjective, of course, but there are a few important points to be gleaned:

  1. Bad clients are hard to avoid. When I give a client a “D” rating, that means a hospital or employer that is so bad, you have concerns for your medical license or don’t feel ethically comfortable with what they are asking you to do. These are nightmare assignments and must be carefully avoided. I describe my experience with one of the “D’s” here. Big name agencies (and even I on my own) can be duped into accepting bad apple clients. Since it’s hard to know which ones are truly bad (even after a phone interview), I now only commit to a short (about 2 week) initial assignment and then extend once I feel comfortable with the match.
  2. There are good recruiters everywhere. Although the larger agencies pride themselves in outstanding customer service, the truth is that I have had great relationships with most recruiters at most agencies. From a physician perspective, the “customer experience” is fairly uniform.
  3. Vendor Management Systems (VMS) don’t create the race to the bottom I expected. The largest agencies are strongly against automated physician-client matching software (which is essentially what VMS does) and argue that they destroy the customer service experience for both hospitals and physicians. Although I am philosophically opposed to being listed on a hospital purchase order along with IV tubing and non-latex gloves, the truth is that such matching has brought me higher-paying assignments at good quality hospitals that do not hire locum tenens physicians outside of a VMS system. I see no reason to exclude agencies who use VMS, though there is a risk of being in a larger competitive pool for each individual assignment. This means that you may waste some time before being placed, but in the end if the pay is $150% of base, then its probably worth it.
  4. Boutique is not better in the locum tenens world. Unless you are in a specialty that is so small you require recruiters who can perform highly customized job matches, boutique agencies can be home to some of the most depressing assignments in America. Desperate clients who have not had success in filling positions through the (highly motivated) big agencies will turn to boutique ones, hoping that their sheer force of personality will cover for the flaws that make their hospital’s hiring difficult. I have learned to steer clear of the boutique charm offensive.
  5. You can make a higher salary if you find your own job. Agencies provide significant value to physicians. They do the hard work of locating and updating job assignments, assisting with credentialing and licensing paperwork, negotiating salary and overtime, providing professional liability insurance, and handling logistics (travel/lodging booking and re-booking).  That being said, if you’re willing to do all that yourself, you can negotiate a much higher salary if you work directly with hospital HR.
  6. Will “gig economics” eventually bypass the current agency model? Online job-matching sites will probably take a big chunk of market share, but won’t “own” the space because they don’t provide the logistical, legal, and credentialing services that physicians enjoy from agencies.  However, given that agency fees add about 40% costs to physician hiring, there is strong motivation to find alternative hiring strategies, and I suspect that Millennial physicians won’t mind doing extra work for higher pay. Websites like Nomad Health are suffering from limited user sign up (both on the client and worker side), but will likely reach a tipping point when a VC firm provides the marketing capital to raise sufficient awareness of the new hiring marketplace that bypasses recruiters and saves hospitals money. Until then, dipping your toes into the healthcare gig economy is easiest to do through an agency – and the big ones (CompHealth and their subsidiary Weatherby Healthcare have about 50% of the market share, followed by Jackson & Coker as the next largest) provide the largest number of options.

The bottom line is that part-time and short term physician assignments can prevent physician burnout and overwork. The pay is generally very good, and agencies can make the experience as painless as possible. Those who desire higher hourly rates can achieve them if they’re willing to take on more responsibility for paperwork and logistics.  Whether this “do it yourself” movement is enhanced by online marketplaces, or good old fashioned cold-calling to find work – physicians hold the cards in this high demand sector. I suspect that more of us will be ready to play our cards in the locum tenens space in the upcoming years, because full time medical work (at the current pace) is, quite ironically, simply not healthy.

How Does The Gig Economy Translate To Physician Work?

The New Yorker recently featured a long essay about a popular new episodic work style sweeping America: the “gig economy.” The gig economy unbundles units of work previously tied to an employer or specific job. Online platforms serve as conveners to match task requests with those seeking to complete them. The New Yorker notes:

TaskRabbit, which was founded in 2008, is one of several companies that, in the past few years, have collectively helped create a novel form of business. The model goes by many names—the sharing economy; the gig economy; the on-demand, peer, or platform economy—but the companies share certain premises. They typically have ratings-based marketplaces and in-app payment systems. They give workers the chance to earn money on their own schedules, rather than through professional accession. And they find toeholds in sclerotic industries. Beyond TaskRabbit, service platforms include Thumbtack, for professional projects; Postmates, for delivery; Handy, for housework; Dogvacay, for pets; and countless others. Home-sharing services, such as Airbnb and its upmarket cousin onefinestay, supplant hotels and agencies. Ride-hailing apps—Uber, Lyft, Juno—replace taxis. Some on-demand workers are part-timers seeking survival work, akin to the comedian who waits tables on the side. For growing numbers, though, gigging is not only a living but a life. Many observers see it as something more: the future of American work.

The pluses and minuses of this kind of work are fairly straight forward. On the positive side there is speed and convenience (both on the part of the worker, and the one who needs the work done). Rapid matching of task to worker occurs in an online environment that promotes competition and favors those with high ratings and a track record of success. There is flexibility for the worker – he or she can commit to as much or as little work as is convenient, and there is the opportunity for augmenting earnings as small, paying “gigs” can be added to already existing work. Variety provides challenge and interest.

On the negative side, choosing to do gig work full-time leaves the gigger without employee benefits (such as health insurance) and an insecurity of income stream. Without a large, trusted company as the agent for work, there are fewer guarantees of service (or protections) for both the hiring entity and the worker. With freedom comes insecurity. And then there’s the question about career advancement and long term economic effects of short-term work.

It seems to me that for most people outside of the healthcare marketplace, the gig economy works best as an income supplement, not replacement. In medicine, however, full time gigging may actually have more pros than cons.

In a system where fee-for-service healthcare is rapidly being replaced with bundled payments, shared responsibility, and accountable care, it is ironic that the workforce is moving in the opposite direction. Although initially physicians were driven to become hospital employees (instead of independent practitioners), now the pendulum is swinging in the gigging direction. Primary care is embracing the “direct pay” model, and more and more physicians are joining locum tenens agencies. I myself was an early adopter of both concierge medicine and locum tenens work.

Direct primary care is efficient – patients pay only for what they need (presumably from an HSA account), and there are incredible cost savings involved for providers, not having to code and bill insurance companies for services. As I’ve said previously, using health insurance for primary care is like having car insurance for windshield wipers. Expensive overkill.

As far as locum tenens is concerned, there is no better way to prevent burn out and overwork than to reclaim control of your work schedule. Short term work assignments may be accepted or declined at the physician’s convenience. You can travel as far and wide as you have interest (there are international locums assignments available too), and gain exposure to various practice styles and locations. You set your hourly rates, and the pay is fair and transparent. No more uncompensated hours of extra work that fuel resentment towards your employer.

New companies such as Nomad Health are poised to revolutionize the gig economy for physicians. By directly linking physicians with job opportunities in an online marketplace, agency costs are avoided, saving money for hospitals and allowing for higher doctor salaries. The question remains if they will gain the user volume necessary to compete with agencies. Nomad Health will succeed if it can convene sufficient numbers of hospitals and physicians to make it worth the time on the site.

The gig economy is the natural evolution of our modern culture. As technology enables an on-demand lifestyle, work is becoming as modifiable as our media consumption.  Will chopping work up into smaller bits have a net positive or negative effect? For the companies creating the niche platforms that support the work marketplaces, the outlook seems positive. Uber, for example, is currently valued at about $28 billion. They have drawn inspiration from video games to psychologically incentivize drivers to work longer hours, contributing to their success – and perhaps downfall. By maximizing their own profits at the expense of the drivers, their gigging community is beginning to look for greener pastures at Lyft. Competition is a critical part of the gig economy.

In healthcare, I worry that a significant physician shift towards gigging could be disruptive to care continuity and result in higher costs and poorer outcomes. That being said, the alternative of physician burn out, early retirement, and flight from clinical medicine is not acceptable. I suspect that the gig economy is going to change how physicians engage with the healthcare system – and that within a decade, a large segment of the workforce will be part-timers and short-timers. This may provide a sustainable way for older physicians (or those with family or childcare demands) to continue working, which could substantially improve the physician shortage.

Gone are the days of cradle-to-grave relationships with primary care physicians – I mourn the loss of this customized, deeply personal care, but I stand ready to embrace the inevitable. I just hope that I can connect with my “short-term” patients so that my advice and treatment captures their medical complexity (and personal wishes) correctly. With all the technological tools to personalize medicine these days, it is ironic how impersonal it can be when you rarely see the same physician twice. The gig economy forces us to be perpetual strangers, and that is perhaps its greatest drawback.

Most Doctors Could Pay Off Their Student Loans Quickly If They Took Short Term Austerity Measures

At the risk of vilification by my peers, I’m going to say something extremely unpopular. We physicians have it pretty good financially. Our salaries are generous, and we have a much higher standard of living than most others in America. When I read online physician complaints about student loan debt, I cringe a bit. Because of all the people in debt, we are some of the most likely to be able to pay it down quickly.

Medical school and residency are emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausting. There is no doubt that we are severely cash-strapped during those years, and yearn for the day when we can go out to a nice restaurant and order anything we want from the menu. Most of us are eager to splurge on ourselves the minute we get our first job, and do not think about loan repayment. However, the truth is that if we gutted it out (living “like a resident”) for a mere 2 more years, most of us could pay off our student loans completely.

Let’s say we have an annual salary of about $200K and a student loan debt of about the same. What is the average household income in America? About 51K? Maybe if we lived on that amount for 2 years, and put all the rest (after taxes) into our loans – we’d be debt free.

I feel worried for young Americans who have a similar total student loan debt as physicians, but graduate with much lower earning potential. Students should soberly consider educational debt against their likely ability to repay it. We must all choose our education wisely, as it may have life-long consequences for our standard of living.

Physicians have many legitimate gripes, student loan debt (in my view) is not one of them.

 

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