In an effort to save on human resources costs, some hospitals have decided to make locum tenens* doctors and nurses line items in a supply list. Next to IV tubing, liquid nutritional supplements and anti-bacterial wipes you’ll find slots for nurses, surgeons, and hospitalist positions. This depressing commoditization of professional staffing is a new trend in healthcare promoted by software companies promising to solve staffing shortages with vendor management systems (VMS). In reality, they are removing the careful provider recruiting process from job matching, causing a “race to the bottom” in care quality. Instead of filling a staff position with the most qualified candidates with a proven track record of excellent bedside manner and evidence-based practice, physicians and nurses with the lowest salary requirements are simply booked for work.
In a policy environment where quality measures and patient satisfaction ratings are becoming the basis for reimbursement rates, one wonders how VMS software is getting traction. Perhaps desperate times call for desperate measures, and the challenge of filling employment gaps is driving interest in impersonal digital match services? Rural hospitals are desperate to recruit quality candidates, and with a severe physician shortage looming, warm bodies are becoming an acceptable solution to staffing needs.
As distasteful as the thought of computer-matching physicians to hospitals may be, the real problems of VMS systems only become apparent with experience. After discussing user experience with several hospital system employees and reading various blogs and online debates here’s what I discovered:
1. Garbage In, Garbage Out. The people who input physician data (including their certifications, medical malpractice histories, and licensing data) have no incentive to insure accuracy of information. Head hunter agencies are paid when the physicians/nurses they enter into the database are matched to a hospital. To make sure that their providers get first dibs, they may leave out information, misrepresent availability, and in extreme cases, even falsify certification statuses. These errors are often caught during the hospital credentialing process, which results in many hours of wasted time on the part of internal credentialing personnel, and delays in filling the position. In other cases, the errors are not caught during credentialing and legal problems ensue when impaired providers are hired accidentally.
2. Limitation of choice. The non-compete contracts associated with VMS systems typically prevent hospital physician recruiters from contacting staffing agencies directly to fill their needs. This forces the hospital to rely on the database for all staffing leads. At least 68% of staffing agencies do not participate with VMS systems, so a large portion of the most carefully vetted professionals remain outside the VMS, inaccessible to those who contracted to use it.
3. Extra hospital employee training required. There are hundreds of proprietary VMS systems in use. Each one requires specialized training to manage everything from durable medical equipment to short term surgical staff. In cases where hospital staff are spread too thin to master this training, some VMS companies are pleased to provide a “managed service provider” or MSP to outsource the entire recruitment process. This adds additional layers, further removing the hospital recruiter from the physician.
4. Providers hate VMS systems. As anyone who has read a recent nursing blog can attest, VMS systems are universally despised by the potential employees they represent. VMS paints professionals in black and white, without the ability to distinguish quality, personality, or perform careful reference checks. They force down salaries, may rule out candidates based on where they live (travel costs), and provide no opportunity to negotiate salary vis-a-vis work load. When a hospital opts to use a VMS system as a middle man between them and the staffing agencies, the agencies often pass along the cost to the providers by offering them a lower hourly rate.
5. Provider privacy may be compromised. Once a physician or nurse curriculum vitae (CV) is entered into the VMS database the agency recruiter who entered it has 1 year (I can’t confirm that this is true for all systems) to represent them exclusively. After that, the CV is often available for any recruiter who has access to that VMS to view or pitch to any client. There is a wide variety of agency quality in the healthcare staffing industry, with some being highly ethical and selective in choosing their clients (only quality hospitals) and providers (carefully screened). Others are transactional, bottom-feeders with all the scruples of a used car salesman. When your data is in a VMS, one minute you might be represented by a caring, thoughtful recruiter who understands and respects your career needs, and the next (without your informed consent) you’ll be matched to a bankrupt hospital undergoing investigation by the Department of Health by a gum-chewing salesman who threatens you with a lawsuit if you don’t complete an assignment for half the pay you usually receive.
6. No cost savings, only increased liability. In the end, some hospitals who have tried VMS systems say that their decreased hiring costs have not resulted in overall savings. While they may see a downward shift in salary paid to their temporary work force, they get what they pay for. Just one “bad hire” who causes a medical malpractice lawsuit can eat up salary savings for an entire year of VMS. Not to mention the increased costs associated with a slower hiring process, attrition from poor fits, and the inconvenience of having to re-recruit for positions over and over again. Providers also lose out on career opportunities while they’re “on hold” during a prolonged hiring process. And for those who layer on a MSP, they lose control of the most important hospital quality and safety line of defense – choosing your own doctors and nurses.
In summary, while the idea of using a software matching service for recruiting physicians and nurses to hospitals sounds appealing at first, the bottom line is that reducing care providers to a group of numerical fields removes all the critical nuance from the hiring process. VMS, with their burdensome non-competes, cumbersome technology, and lack of quality control are an unwelcome new middle man in the healthcare staffing environment. It is my hope that they will be squeezed out of the business based on their own inability to provide value to a healthcare system that craves and rewards quality and excellence in its staff.
Job matching requires thoughtful hospital recruiters in partnership with ethical, experienced agencies. Choosing one’s hospital gauze vendor should involve a different selection algorithm than hiring a new chief of surgery. It’s time for physician and nurse groups to take a stand against this VMS-inspired commoditization of medicine before its roots sink in too deeply and we all become mere line items on a hospital vendor list. So next time you doctors and nurses plan to work a temporary assignment, ask your recruiter if they use a VMS system. Avoiding those agencies who do may mean a much better (and higher paying) work experience.
*Locum tenens (filling hospital staffing needs with part time or traveling physicians and nurses) is big business. Here is a run down of the estimated market size and its key industry leaders (provided by CompHealth):
It’s no secret that most physicians are unhappy with the way things are going in healthcare. Surveys report high levels of job dissatisfaction, “burn out” and even suicide. In fact, some believe that up to a third of the US physician work force is planning to leave the profession in the next 3 years – an alarming statistic.
Direct primary care practices are touted as the best way to restore patient and provider satisfaction. Those brave enough to cut out the “middle man” (i.e. health insurers, both public and private) find a remarkable reduction in billing paperwork, unrecovered fees, and electronic documentation requirements. I know many physicians who have made the switch and are extremely happy to be able to spend most of their time in direct patient care, unfettered by most rules, regulations, and coding systems. They can solve problems via phone, email, text, video chat, or in-office as the need arises without having to worry about whether or not their manner of interaction will be reimbursed.
Direct primary care is probably the best way to find freedom and happiness in practicing outpatient medicine. But where does that leave physicians who are tied to hospital care due to the nature of their specialty (surgeons, intensivists, anesthesiologists, etc.)? Is there any way for them to find a brighter way forward?
I have found that working as a locum tenens hospital-based physician has dramatically improved my work satisfaction, and it may do so for you too. Here’s why:
1. You can take as much time off as you want, anytime you want. Do not underestimate the power of frequent vacations on your mental health. The frenetic pace of the hospital is much more tolerable in short doses. My attitude, stamina, and ability to stay focused is dramatically improved by working only 2-3 week stretches at a time. When I feel good, I can spread the cheerfulness, and I am happy to spend longer hours at work to give my patients more of my time.
2. You can avoid most political drama. Hospitals are incredibly stressful environments filled with hierarchical and territorial land mines. Being a short-timer allows you to avoid many conflicts. Administrators never nag you, or hold you responsible for perceived departmental deficiencies. You don’t need to attend committee meetings or become involved in personality quirk arbitrage. You can stay above the fray, focusing purely on the patients.
3. You learn all kinds of new things. Exposure to different patient populations, hospital expertise and different peer groups exposes you to a broader swath of technology and humanity. No longer will you be tied to the regional practice idiosyncrasies of a single hospital – you’ll learn how to tackle problems from many different angles. That knowledge earns you respect, and serves to cross-pollinate your own specialty, making you – and those you learn from – better doctors.
4. You are free to leave. There’s something refreshing about knowing that you can leave a place that you don’t like without any repercussions. No matter how unpleasant a locums assignment, it will end, and you can saunter off to brighter pastures.
5. You make more money. Believe it or not, locums work can be quite lucrative if you find the right assignments. I know a team of hospitalists who travel the country together, negotiating higher rates since they are a “one stop” solution. Their housing, travel, and cars are paid for by the agency, and they have take home pay (before taxes) around $350K per year. I personally think that working that many hours as a locum tenens physician kind of defeats the purpose of avoiding burn out, but some people like to do it that way.
6. You can live in the warm states in the winter, and the cold ones in the summer. Enough said.
7. You can try before you buy. Maybe you’re not sure where you want to sink down career roots. Or maybe you’re not sure you’ll like living in a certain city or part of the world? Maybe your family isn’t sure they want to move to a new location? Locum tenens assignments are the perfect way to try before you buy.
8. You can use your experience to become an excellent consultant. With long term exposure to various hospital systems, you are in a unique position to develop an encyclopedic knowledge of best practices. Sharing how other hospitals have solved their challenges can spark reform at other institutions. You can become a real force for positive change, not just on a micro level, but system and state-wide.
Working as a locum tenens physician may enhance your career satisfaction and promote professional advancement. What it will not solve, however, is the following:
1. You still have to work within the framework of bureaucracy endemic to hospitals. You’ll need to learn to use multiple different EMR systems and fill out most of the same paperwork that you do as a full-timer. This is painful at first, but once you’ve mastered the most common EMR systems (I’ve only really encountered 5 different ones in 2 years of locum tenens work) you’ll find a clinical rhythm that fits into most frameworks.
2. You will be living out of a suitcase. If the disruption of frequent travel is too much for you (or your family) to bear, then perhaps the locums lifestyle is not for you.
3. You will be annoyed by the process of getting multiple medical licenses and hospital credentialing. Agencies try to help with this burden, but mostly, you’ll need to suffer through this part yourself.
4. You will have to live with some degree of uncertainty. Part of the nature of working as a locum tenens physician is that clients (hospitals) change their minds frequently. They try to fill open positions with local staff or hire additional full-timers, using locums as their more expensive back ups. Assignments fall through frequently, so you’ll need to be ready to change course quickly.
Overall, I believe that locum tenens work can provide the practice freedom that many hospital-based physicians crave. If you’re eager to get off the unrelenting clinical treadmill, this is an easy way to do it. At a recent assignment near New Hampshire, I mused at the license plates that I passed on my way to work: “Live free or die” is their state motto. And I think it captures my sentiments exactly.
A well-to-do patient recently boasted to me about an expensive insurance plan that he had purchased to “guarantee” that he had access to the best healthcare in the United States. Coverage included access to elite academic centers (all the usual suspects) and a private jet service for emergencies. He was utterly confident that his investment was worth the price, but I withheld my own misgivings.
Hospital quality data suggest that “fancy, brand name hospitals” provide better patient care. But unfortunately there is no guarantee of good outcomes for anyone who sets foot in a hospital. My experience doesn’t exactly square with quality data, and although I realize that there are teams of public and private sector analysts out there furiously rating and ranking hospitals with all manner of outcomes data, I don’t think it means a whole lot for the individual “worried well” patient. Here’s why:
1. Higher overall patient complexity may mean less attention for you. Academic medical centers specialize in caring for those who are often too sick or too complicated to be cared for elsewhere. This means that each patient requires more staff time to address their long list of diseases and conditions. Everything from medication reconciliation to medical testing, to bedside care, requires more time from each provider taking care of them. If you happen to be on a medical floor with complicated neighbors, expect to see less of your doctors and nurses. It’s not fair, but this happens regularly at elite centers, and it’s not in your best interest.
2. Less-experienced physicians may be providing the bulk of your care. Academic teaching hospitals are actively involved in training young doctors, and the least experienced among them will likely be providing the majority of your care (and reporting up to the overseeing physicians). Because of the exhausting complexity of very sick patients, if you are not among the very sickest (or provide a steady stream of diagnostic conundrums requiring the input and expertise from the top experts), your care will be left in the hands of the residents. This doesn’t mean you won’t get good care, but it introduces some degree of risk.
3. You may be exposed to really bad germs. Drug-resistant bacteria are born in places that use big-gun antibiotics. Again, with more challenging cases and infectious diseases in the patient mix, more antibiotics are used and more drug-resistant bacteria develop. Although academic centers make great efforts not to spread infections, it can happen. And if you do get a hospital-acquired infection, it’s probably going to be a bad one.
4. More providers means more opportunity to make EMR-based medical errors. As I’ve argued in recent blog posts, electronic medical records are error prone for a number of reasons. The more people entering data into your record, the more opportunity for mix ups and confusions. Academic medical centers may boast more specialists and a higher staff to patient ratio, but this is not always a good thing. The fewer the number of providers caring for you (especially nurses), the better you are known to them, and therefore the lower the risk of certain mistakes.
5. More tests and procedures aren’t always a good thing. Academic centers have access to a larger breadth of technology, which means that they are more likely to order more tests and procedures. Imaging studies, biopsies, lab tests, and advanced surgical procedures can provide additional information that can change the course of therapy. But they also have the ability to initiate wild goose chases, further testing, unnecessary anxiety, and additional risk (and expense) to the patient. Judicious use of technology is important, but with less experienced physicians on the team, they are more likely to reflexively order a test than to rely on their clinical experience regarding diagnosis and treatment.
6. Many “moving parts” increase your risk for errors, mix ups, and longer wait times. The larger the hospital, the more chances there are for accidental substitutions, name confusion, and test scheduling conflicts. It may seem improbable that these events still occur (Don’t we have bar codes on wrist bands that have solved this problem? You ask.), but if you’re a physician clicking between electronic medical records of patients with the same last name, no bar code will save you. I myself was a patient in the ER of a large elite academic center once, when the security guards confused me with a volatile psychotic patient previously located in the bay that my stretcher was moved into. They almost got the four-point restraints on before I convinced them to re-check my identity with the nurses. Awkward. Also, if you need an MRI or CT scan at a level 1 trauma center, you could be waiting a long time for it as sicker patients bump you from the schedule.
7. Traveling to a center of excellence means post-acute care services will be harder to arrange. If you are recovering from a serious illness or surgery far away from home, case managers will probably have a harder time connecting with services to help you upon discharge. If you need visiting nurses, home-based therapists, durable medical equipment, or follow up care (either with specialists or primary care physicians) all of that will be more challenging to arrange because the case managers don’t have them in their virtual Rolodex. Because of the complexity of the healthcare system, it takes years of effort for good case managers and discharge planners to streamline the process of getting through to the “right person” at each service provider and providing them with the “correct” insurance information and completed forms and paperwork. If they’re lobbying for you out of state or in a far away county, they will probably end up spending a lot of time on hold, or talking to the wrong person. And when you finally arrive home and the visiting nurse doesn’t show up, or you don’t have your walker after all… you will not be happy.
8. You may be stuck with an enormous, post-hospital price tag. Most people nowadays have insurance that covers care at certain “preferred” facilities at a much lower cost to the patient. If you go “outside of network” you may be responsible for a much higher percentage of your care cost than you bargained for. Before you decide to opt for the big brand name academic medical center for your care or procedure, double check with your insurance provider regarding what your part of the cost will be.
If you (or your loved one) are in the unfortunate position of having a rare, life-threatening, or extremely complicated host of diseases and conditions, then you may have no choice but to go to an academic medical center for care. If you’re like my wealthy patient, though, and can afford what you think are insurance upgrades to provide you with access to the “best care available,” you may discover that better care is actually found closer to home.
In an upcoming post, I’ll describe my experience with hospital characteristics that tend to predict a higher quality of care. You may be surprised to find that there isn’t a whole lot of overlap between my personal measures and what we are led to believe are the important ones.