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How Do Hospital Executives Feel About Locum Tenens Agencies And Traveling Physicians?

I recently wrote about my experiences as a traveling physician and how to navigate locum tenens work. Today I want to talk about the client (in this case, hospital) side of the equation. I’ve had the chance to speak with several executives (some were physicians themselves) about the overall process of hiring and managing temporary physicians. What I heard wasn’t pretty. I thought I’d summarize their opinions in the form of a mock composite interview to protect their anonymity – I’m hoping that locum MDs and agencies alike can learn from this very candid discussion.

Dr. Val: How do you feel about Locum Tenens agencies?

Executive: They’re a necessary evil. We are desperate to fill vacancies and they find doctors for us. But they know we are desperate and they take full advantage of that.

Dr. Val: What do you mean?

Executive: They charge very high hourly rates, and they don’t care about finding the right fit for the job. They seem to have no interest in matching physician temperament with hospital culture. They are only interested in billable hours and warm bodies, unfortunately. But we know this going in.

Dr. Val: Do you try to screen the candidates yourself before they begin work at your hospital?

Executive: Yes, we carefully review all their CVs and we interview them over the phone.

Dr. Val: So does that help with finding better matches?

Executive: Not really. Everyone looks good on paper and they sound competent on the phone. You only really know what their work ethic is like once they’ve started seeing patients.

Dr. Val: What percent of locums physicians would you say are “sub-par” then?

Executive: About 50%.

Dr. Val: Whoah! That’s very high. What specifically is wrong with them? Are they poor clinicians or what?

Executive: It’s a lot of things. Some are poor clinicians, but more commonly they just don’t work very hard. They have this attitude that they only have to see “X” number of patients per day, no matter what the census. So they’re not good team players. Also many of them have prima donna attitudes. They just swish into our hospital and tell us how they like to do things. They have no problem complaining or calling out flaws in the system because they know they can walk away and never see us again.

Dr. Val: Yikes, they sound horrible. Looking back on those interviews that you did with them, could you see any of this coming? Are there red flags in retrospect?

Executive: None that I can think of. All of our problem locums have been very different – some are old, some are young – they come from very different backgrounds, cultures, and parts of the country. I can’t think of anything they had in common on paper or in the phone interviews.

Dr. Val: So maybe the agencies don’t screen them well?

Executive: Right. I think they probably ignore negative feedback about a physician and just “solve the problem” by not sending them back to the same hospital. They just send them elsewhere – and so the problem continues. They have no incentive really to take a locums physician out of circulation unless they do something truly dangerous at work (medical malpractice). That’s pretty rare.

Dr. Val: I recently wrote on my blog that there are 4 kinds of physicians who do locums: 1. Retirees, 2. Salary Seekers, 3. Dabblers and 4. Problem personalities – would you agree with those categories?

Executive: Yes, but I think that a large proportion of the locums I’ve met have been either motivated by money (i.e. they want to make some extra cash so they can go on a fancy vacation) or they just don’t get along well with others. There are more “problem people” out there than you think.

Dr. Val: This is rather depressing. Have you found that some agencies do a better job than others at keeping the “good” physicians coming?

Executive: Well, we only work with 2 or 3 agencies, so I can’t speak to the entire range of options. We just can’t handle the complexity associated with juggling too many recruiters at once because we end up with accidental overlap in contracts. We have booked two doctors via two different agencies for the same block of time and then we are legally bound to take them both. It’s an expensive mistake.

Dr. Val: Does one particular agency stand out to you in terms of quality of experience?

Executive: No. Actually they all seem about the same.

Dr. Val: For us locums doctors, I can tell you that agencies vary quite a bit in terms of quality of assignments and general process.

Executive: There may be a difference on your end, but not much on ours.

Dr. Val: So, being that using locums has been a fairly negative experience for you, what do you intend to do to change it?

Executive: We are trying very hard to recruit full time physicians to join our staff so that we reduce our need for locums docs. It’s not easy. Full time physician work has become, quite frankly, drudgery. Our system is so burdened with bureaucratic red tape, decreasing reimbursement, billing rules and government regulations that it sucks the soul right out of you. I don’t like who I become when I work full time. That’s why I had to take an administrative job. I still see patients part-time, but I can also get the mental and emotional break I need.

Dr. Val: So you’re actually a functional locums yourself, if not a literal one.

Executive: Yes, that’s right. I have some guilt about not working full time, and yet, I have to maintain my sanity.

Dr. Val: Given the generally negative work environment that physicians live in these days, I suppose that temporary work is only going to increase exponentially as others take the path that you and I have chosen?

Executive: With the looming physician shortage, rural centers in particular are going to have to rely more and more on locums agencies. What agencies really need to do to distinguish themselves is hire clinicians to help them screen and match locums to hospitals. Agencies don’t seem to really understand what we need or what the problems are with their people. If they had medical directors or a chief medical officer, people who have worked in the trenches and understand both the client side and the locum side, they would be much better at screening candidates and meeting our needs. Until then, we’re probably going to have to limp along with a 50% miss-match rate.

Optimal Salt Intake May Be Double The Currently Recommended Amount

This past summer, DrRich wrote a post on the utter arrogance of the public health experts who are urging the FDA – and international bodies of busybodies – to mandate a policy of strict sodium restriction across the globe.

DrRich attempted to show how such a broad-based salt restriction at this juncture is ill-advised for three reasons. First, the conclusion that a population-wide salt restriction would actually do any good is not based on any actual prospective studies, but on a contrived extrapolation of observational data. Second, there is some evidence that a salt restriction would be harmful to at least a substantial minority of people, even if the overall effect on the population turns out to be positive. And third, there is good reason to believe that the degree of sodium restriction which is being recommended by the public health experts is below the level which is dictated by human physiology.

Perhaps salt restriction for the entire population will turn out to be a good idea. But perhaps not. So in his previous post, DrRich was advocating a prospective, randomized controlled trial to test this proposition before just going ahead and inflicting it upon hundreds of millions of Americans.

And now, as it happens, in recent weeks new studies have been published which question the safety of salt restriction for the whole population. In fact, five studies have been published just this year suggesting that salt restriction might be unsafe.

The latest, published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association,  suggests that when you compare cardiovascular events (such as heart attack and stroke) to sodium intake, the incidence of those events follows a “J” curve. That is, cardiovascular events are lowest at an “optimal” level of sodium intake. But if sodium intake goes above that optimal level – or if it goes below it – the incidence of cardiovascular events increases. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at The Covert Rationing Blog*

Do Physicians Have A Role In Controlling Healthcare Costs?

The Role of Physicians in Controlling Medical Care Costs and Reducing Waste by the RAND Corporation and David Geffen, University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine, Santa Monica was just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  I do not think the JAMA should have published this article.

1.Why would the JAMA publish such an article?

2. Why are physicians blamed for all the waste in the system?

3. Why is it the physicians’ responsibility to eliminate waste when they are not the cause of the greatest percentage of the waste?

“The amount of money spent on medical care is increasing faster than the gross domestic product (GDP), and the federal deficit is increasing.”

The initial statement assumes that the government deficit is increasing because physicians control government spending for healthcare.

This is only partly correct. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Repairing the Healthcare System*

Medical Ethics And The “R” Word

[Recently] a short article in the New York Times, New Kidney Transplant Policy Would Favor Younger Patients, [drew] my attention to a very basic problem in medical ethics: Rationing.

According to the Washington Post coverage, the proposal comes from the United Network for Organ Sharing, a Richmond-based private non-profit group the federal government contracts for allocation of donated organs. From the Times piece:

Under the proposal, patients and kidneys would each be graded, and the healthiest and youngest 20 percent of patients and kidneys would be segregated into a separate pool so that the best kidneys would be given to patients with the longest life expectancies.

This all follows [the recent] front-page business story on the monetary value of life.

I have to admit, I’m glad to see these stories in the media. Any reasoned discussion of policy and reform requires frank talk on healthcare resources which, even in the best of economic times, are limited.

*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*

First Monetary HIPAA Fine Issued

Via the Threatpost article “HIPAA Bares Its Teeth: $4.3m Fine For Privacy Violation“:

The health care industry’s toothless tiger finally bared its teeth, as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a $4.3 m fine to a Maryland health care provider for violations of the HIPAA Privacy Rule. The action is the first monetary fine issued since the Act was passed in 1996.

A copy of a penalty notice against Cignet depicts a two-year effort in which HHS struggled with what appears to be a dysfunctional Maryland provider unaware of the potential impact of HIPAA non-compliance, and unwilling or unable to cooperate with HHS in any way.

When first reading the title I was willing to rail against HIPAA, as I’m tired of it. Then I read the post. Wow. It’s like a test case designed to see just how far you could push HHS, and frankly how incompetent you can be while pushing. Seems HHS was having trouble getting Cignet’s attention. I bet they have it now.

*This blog post was originally published at GruntDoc*

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