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The Underbelly Of Vendor Management Systems And The Commoditization Of Physicians And Nurses

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):

Ethical Dilemmas Of Psychiatry: Should Confidentiality Ever Be Breached?

I’ve been asked several ‘ethical dilemmas’ in the past few weeks.  I’m putting them up on Shrink Rap, but please don’t get hung up on the details.  These aren’t my patients, but the details of the stories are being distorted to disguise those involved.  The question, in both cases, boils down to: Should the mental health professional report the patient to his professional board?

In the first case, a psychiatrist is treating a nurse who is behaving badly.  The nurse is stealing controlled substances from the hospital and giving them to friends who ‘need’ them.  She doesn’t intend to stop, and her contact with the psychiatrist was only for an appointment or two before she ended treatment.  Should the psychiatrist contact the state’s nursing board?   Is he even allowed to?

In the second case, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

Hospitals May Not Be The Best Places To Treat Dementia Patients

Sending dementia patients to the hospital could overwhelm the health care system and not offer them any better care at the end of life, researchers noted.

The researchers obtained data on all hospitalizations involving a dementia diagnosis for the 85 years and older group between years 2000 and 2008 from the nationally representative Nationwide Inpatient Sample database, a part of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Healthcare Costs and Utilization Project.

Annual hospitalization data came from the U.S. Census Bureau. They projected the future volume of hospitalizations involving a dementia diagnosis in the 85 years and older group two ways, Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*

Therapy Is About Having An Honest Relationship, But Is Lying Ever OK?

We’ve been having a great discussion over on the post Tell Me…. An Ethical Dilemma.  The post talks about a young man who wants to know if he can check “no” to a question about whether he has a psychiatric disorder if his illness is not relevant to the situation.  The comments have been fascinating — do read them– and very thought-provoking.

One reader asked, ” If a patient asked if they were boring you, and they were, would you say yes?”

This is a great question, and of course the right thing to do is to explore with the patient what meaning the concern has to him.  But is that all?  I’m not very good at doing the old psychoanalyst thing of deflecting all questions, and mostly I do answer questions when they are asked of me.  This can present a really sticky situation because one can not think of any clinical scenario in which it would be therapeutic to have a therapist tell a patient, ‘Yes, you’re boring, OMG are you boring,’ or ‘No, in fact, I don’t like you.’  And not answering could be viewed as negative response by the patient –if you liked me, you’d tell me, so clearly you don’t like me.  So if the exploration of the question doesn’t take care of the issue, and the patient continues to ask, what’s a shrink to do? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

Avoid Surgeons Without Accredited Training: It Could Save Your Life

Three young mothers under the age of 40 are dead because they wanted to be beautiful. Kellee Lee-Howard wanted a slimmer body. Ditto Maria Shortall and Rohie Kah-Orukatan. Shortall worked as a housekeeper; Lee-Howard was the mother of six kids and Kah-Orukotan died at the same place where she received manicures. What do these women have in common besides being minorities? They had liposuction procedures performed by men who offered a discounted price for an elective surgical procedure. These men professed to be competent in performing the procedures but never had accredited training.

I knew this day was coming. I saw the storm long before the clouds emerged. As the insurance payments for professional medical services decreased and declined, physicians began to look for alternative ways to earn money. But was it ethical? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Linda Burke-Galloway*

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