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Physicians: It Doesn’t Matter Where You Work, It’s All About The Team You’re With

Moose, A Therapy Pet In Idaho

As a traveling physician, I’m often asked if I have a favorite place to work. Since I have licenses in 14 states, I have an usual vantage point from which to compare hospitals. I know that people who ask this question presume that my answer will be heavily influenced by the town where the job is located, and all the associated extra-curriculars, environmental peculiarities (ocean, mountains, desert), and potential amenities. The truth is that very little of that is important. Over the years I’ve found that it doesn’t matter so much where you are, as whom you’re with.

As I’ve argued previously, true quality health care is not always predicted by reputation or academic prowess. It has a lot more to do with local hospital culture, and how invested the staff are in giving patients their all. In my experience, some of the very best institutions (in terms of reduced medical error rates, evidence-based practices, and an avoidance of over-testing/treating) are in rural areas. They are not on the America’s Best Hospitals list, but are hidden gems scattered throughout the country. Of course, I’ve also seen some abysmal care in out-of-the way places. My point is that hospital location and reputation is not directly correlated with career satisfaction or excellent patient care.

My favorite hospital is populated by perpetually cheerful staff. Their energy, enthusiasm, and constant supportiveness is remarkable. I once commented that I felt like a therapy pet when I arrived on the unit – everyone was so happy to see me, it was as if I were a golden retriever who had shown up for play time. That feeling can carry me through the most difficult work hours or complicated patient problems. It is so emotionally sunny in that hospital that the surrounding environment could be an Alaskan winter and I’d be ok with it.

Alternatively, there are hospitals where I’m regularly greeted with all the affection that Jerry shows Newman in the Seinfeld sitcom. You know, the eye-rolling, sarcasm-dripping “Helloooo Newman…” Yeah. In those hospitals where I’m made to feel like an unwanted nuisance, time goes by so slowly I can barely stand it. I fight to keep my spirits up for my patients’ sakes, but in the end, the negativity takes its toll. I could be located in the middle of northern California wine country at harvest season and want to get the first flight out. Seriously, your micro-environment is so critical to your happiness. Do not underestimate the importance of liking your peers when you choose your job.

Which leads me to my final point – if you’re thinking about relocating, but aren’t sure if you’ll be happy, why not “try before you buy?” Become a traveling physician (aka locum tenens) for a while to gain some exposure to different places and work environments. Your pre-conceived notions may be off-base. You may fall in love with a place you wouldn’t have thought twice about based on a state map…  Because a map won’t tell you where you’ll be welcomed with open arms, versus ostracized by hostile peers. Find out if you’ll be a Newman or a therapy pet at your next hospital. It makes all the difference in the world.

The Last Zombie Conversion: A Final Look At Paper Medicine And Some Advice For EMR Vendors

The digital revolution in healthcare has transformed most hospitals into EMR-dependent worksites, dotted with computer terminals that receive more attention than the patients themselves. I admit that my own yearning for the “good old days” was beginning to wane, as my memory of paper charting and a patient-focused culture was becoming a distant memory. That is, until I filled in for a physician at a rural hospital where digital mandates, like a bad zombie movie, had bitten their victim but his full conversion to undead status had not been completed. At this hospital in its “incubation period,” electronic records consisted of collated scans of hand-written notes, rather than auto-populated templates. I’m not necessarily recommending the return of the microfiche, but what I experienced in this environment surprised me.

1. Everyone read my notes. Because everything I wrote was relevant (not just a re-hash of data from another part of the medical record), reading became high-yield. Just as people have adapted to ignoring internet advertising (Does anyone even look at the right hand rails of web pages anymore?), EMR-users have become accustomed to skimming and ignoring notes because the “nuggets” of useful input are so sparse and difficult to find that no has time to do so. The entire team was more informed and up to date with my treatment plan because they could easily read what I was thinking.

2. I was able to draw diagrams again. Sometimes a picture is worth 1000 words – and when given a pen and paper, it is great to have the chance to quickly draw a wound site, or visually capture the anatomical concerns a patient may have, or even add an arrow, underline, or circle for emphasis. Thorough neuro exams are so much easier to document with stick figures and motor scores/reflexes added.

3. I could see at a glance if a consultant had stopped by to see a patient. It used to be customary for specialists to leave a note in the paper record immediately after examining a patient. If they didn’t have time to jot down a full consult, they would at least leave me their summary statement – with critical conclusions and next steps. It was a real time-saver to know when a consulting physician had evaluated a patient and get their key feedback if you missed them in person.

Nowadays consultants often see patients and order tests and medications in the EMR without speaking to the requesting attending physician. It may take days for their notes or dictation to show up in the electronic medical record, and depending on the complexity of the system, they may be nearly impossible to find. The result is redundant phone calling (asking the consultant’s admin, NP, PA etc. if they know if he’s seen the patient and what the plan is), and sometimes missed steps in the timely ordering of tests and procedures. At times I simply resort to asking the patient if Dr. So-And-So has stopped by, and if they know what he was planning to do. This doesn’t inspire confidence on the patient’s part, I can tell you.

4. I could order anything I wanted. EMR order entry systems force you to select from drop down menus that may not reflect your intentions. When you have a pen and paper – imagine this – you can very clearly and accurately capture what you’d like to order for the patient! There is no confusion about drug taper schedules, wound care instructions, weight bearing status, exercise precautions. It’s all as clear as free text. You can even explain why substitutes are not acceptable, thus heading off a follow up pharmacist call.

5. The patient became the focus. Since I didn’t need to spend all my time entering data into a computer system in real time, I was able to focus more carefully and clearly on the patients. My attention was not constantly being distracted by EMR alerts, unimportant drug interaction warnings, or forced entry of irrelevant information in order to complete a task. I felt more relaxed, I had more time to think, and I got more important work done.

In conclusion, it is obvious to me that we have a long way to go in making EMRs fit our natural pre-zombification hospital workflow. At the very least, we should be developing the following tools:

1. We need better ways to separate the signal from the noise. Even something as simple as a different font color for the new information that we doctors enter (in a given progress note) would help the eye latch on to what’s important. There should be a simple, visual way to distinguish between template and free text.

2. We need a pen feature that allows authors to signify emphasis. Wouldn’t it be nice if there could be an overlay that allowed us to circle words or add arrows or underlines? If the TV weather man can do this on his digital map, why can’t EMRs allow this layer? For example, physicians would like to circle lab values that are changing, and indicate the direction of change.

3. We need boxes where we can draw diagrams. A simple tablet function would be easy enough to enable. Sure it would be nice to have a stylus, but I’d settle for mouse or track pad entry. This is not a feature of most EMRs I’ve used, but could easily become one. Perhaps not everyone will want to use this feature, but for the artistic among us, it would be a god-send.

4. We need a Four-Square check in type feature so that physicians immediately know if their patient has been seen by the requested consultants. Their impressions should be quickly accessible (perhaps with a voice text to the ordering MD) while their formal consultation notes are grinding their way through the system days later.

5. We need to pare down the unnecessary EMR alerts, and off load data entry required to meet billing requirements to non-clinical staff. Physicians need to focus on their patient care, not spin their wheels figuring out coding subtleties and CMS documentation requirements that could be completed by others.

6. We need more flexibility in data order entry – so that treatment intentions are captured, not forced into an ill-fitting box. Currently, physicians are finding ways to free text their orders in bizarre “work arounds” just to get them on the record somewhere. This is a recipe for disaster, as lost orders are fairly commonplace when staff aren’t on the same page regarding where to look for free text orders. I feel badly for the nurses, since “note to nurse” seems to be the favored way to enter a complicated pharmacy order.

I am grateful that I got one last look at hospital care as it used to be – so that I can put my finger on why our new digital system is not working well. I just hope that my suggestions help to make processes better for all of us medical zombies in the new digital world.


More advice for EMR Vendors here.

Pluses and minuses of EMRs.

Cartoon: Hospital Charges Are Out Of Control

Dr. Val, The Traveling Physician: Living La Vida Locums, Part 2

On Assignment In California Vineyard

This post is the continuation of my personal thoughts and reflections about what it’s like to work as a Locum Tenens (traveling temp) physician.

Q: Where are the most favorable locums jobs?

This is an interesting question and depends a little bit upon personal taste and priorities. While most locums physicians choose their work based on location (see this nice survey of locum priorities), more experienced locums docs choose their work based on circumstance. What I mean is that it’s more important WHY the hospital needs you, than where the hospital is physically located. It only takes one really bad assignment to learn that lesson the hard way. For instance, if a hospital is recruiting a locum tenens physician because the place is so bad that no one will stay in the job, then I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t matter how nice the city/town/countryside is nearby, you will not enjoy your time there.

Positive prognostic indicators for a good locums assignment include:

1. The person you’re filling in for needs vacation coverage or are on maternity/paternity leave. They are happy with their job and are eager to come back.

2. The hospital is undergoing a growth phase and needs help staffing new wings/wards.

3. The hospital is operating in the black but happens to be in a rural area where it is challenging to find enough physicians to meet the patient needs.

Red flags:

1. The medical director/staff physician “doesn’t have time” to talk to you about the assignment before you commit to doing it.

2. There is more than a second-long pause when you ask the medical director why he/she would want to work there as a locums.

3. The person you’re filling in for was fired due to incompetence or negligence.

4. The person you’re filling in for is on the verge of a nervous break down from overwork, and a locums agency was called in to prevent implosion/explosion type scenarios.

5. There have been multiple staff (nursing usually) strikes at the hospital in the past 6 months.

7. The group with whom you would work is not culturally diverse – and you can imagine having difficulty gaining acceptance by them.

In my experience, you can enjoy living anywhere temporarily if the people and circumstances are pleasant. A nice post-work dinner/coffee with friendly, competent staff – even in a “backwater” setting – trumps a solo trip to a high end, big city restaurant when you are emotionally and mentally exhausted by the misery of a bad hospital. Trust me on this.

As one locums hospitalist put it: “Generally I’ve found the rural hospitals to be the nicest, especially in the midwest. But I’m never going back to South Dakota in the winter.”

Q: How can I negotiate the best salary?

First of all, you need to know that this is a negotiation. When I first started, I just assumed the salary I was offered required a binary response: “Yes, I’ll accept the position,” or “No I’ll keep looking for other opportunities.” That’s why I’m a physician and not a business woman, I guess! Just ask my husband.

Anyway, after a few experiences of getting paid a lower salary than my peers at the same job, I realized the error of my ways. In many cases you can lobby for up to 25% higher pay rate, so you should keep that in mind. In summary, here is where the salary “wiggle room” is:

1. How much overhead your agency charges. Remember the “platinum” agency I referred to in my last post? If you’re working with one of the agencies that is known to be “expensive” then they have more money that they could share with you. If you’re working with a budget agency who competes based on low overhead fees (such as 20% above your base salary rate), then you’ll never get more than $5-10 more/hour from them.

2. If you have a good track record. Once you’ve proven yourself to be an excellent physician, well-liked by the hospital staff where you’ve been assigned, the agency is going to want to keep sending you to new assignments because you’re more likely to get requests to return and will stay longer at each gig. The agency (and the recruiters) make money based on how many hours you bill, so they’d rather send a “sure thing” to a new client than an unknown. They will be more likely to up your salary to seal the deal, knowing they’ll probably get more hours with you in the long run.

3. How desperate the client/hospital is. This is sad to say, but desperate clients will pay higher rates to fill a need. If you’re being offered an unusually high salary for a certain assignment, don’t rejoice, worry (see notes above about “red flags.”)

4. If you bundle. Some enterprising primary care locums docs get together to negotiate group rates. That means, if you have a friend or two who can agree to travel together to a particular place, the agency can pay a higher salary to each of you because they’re getting a larger volume of hours overall. This works really well for internal medicine locums, for example, where hospitals often need multiple docs at a time. It’s actually a brilliant plan, because the people who do it are already sympatico, they have similar work ethics, can share call, sign out to each other, have built in friends to enjoy after work adventures, and arrive as a well-oiled machine. I think this is probably the future of primary care locums. However, if you’re like me (a specialist in a small field) there’s no way to bundle because no hospital ever needs more than one of you at a time. ;-)

5. If you take longer assignments. This stands to reason. If you are going to be working for months (rather than weeks) at a certain hospital, then you have more room to negotiate a larger hourly rate based on the volume principle I described above.

Q: How do locums agencies decide how to match you with a given job opportunity?

Based on my experience, the agencies’ order of priorities for matching physicians with clients are:

1. Whoever is available and answers their phone first. The Locums world is very dog-eat-dog for the agencies. It’s a daily race to see who can present physicians to fill needs the fastest.  Hospitals are looking for the lowest cost solution to their staffing gaps, and will shop multiple agencies for the same positions at once. The agency who brings the first acceptable C.V.s wins the work. Sometimes when there is controversy over which agency gets the job, the client has to review email time/date stamps to verify which came first. Sometimes it’s a matter of minutes. So… if your recruiter’s voice sounds a little tense, you’ll understand what’s going on in his/her world. And if you’re hungry for locums work, be sure to respond promptly for consideration.  That being said, once you’ve established a track record with a few agencies, you’ll have turn away business year-round (especially in primary care).

2. Client preference. Once your C.V. has been presented to the client, they will choose their preferred candidate (if there is more than one option). Usually, they are looking for someone local or whomever will generate the lowest travel expenses. I wish that clients delved a little deeper than that, but my experience is that cost trumps coolness for them most of the time. And when I say “coolness” I mean – wouldn’t you rather have a candidate who writes well, has an unusual background (say – someone who has built medical websites and has been a food critic and cartoonist? Ahem?) than just another chem major straight out of IM residency? Apparently most would say no thanks. Just give me the cheaper one.

3. If they know and like you. Let’s say there are two equally qualified physicians for the same position already screened and signed up for work at a certain agency. If one of you has a track record of being flexible and easy to work with (rather than a demanding, entitled brat – like a few doctors you may know) then the recruiter will put the “nice” person’s CV on top and market you more strongly to the client. Why? Because she doesn’t want to receive whiny phone calls every other day during your assignment about how you don’t like the hospital food. The recruiters have “quality of life” issues too. If you’re lucky and you develop a good, long term relationship with your recruiter, they’ll probably even do YOU a favor and give you a head’s up about upcoming opportunities at the “good” hospitals. And we all know what that means.

4. Whoever will take the lowest hourly rate. In the end, it’s still all about the Benjamins so if there are 2 equally qualified physicians who are similarly “non whiny” then if one will work more days or at a lower rate, then they are more likely to get the job (due to recruiter influence on client preference). But given the large number of positions and the small number of locums to choose from, this game is 80% about who’s available first. Then the rest of the variables follow.

Q: What is the licensing and credentialing process like? How do I make it easier?

The state licensing and hospital credentialing is the most painful administrative part of the whole locum tenens assignment process. If you’re considering an opportunity in say, North Dakota, then you’ll need to get a state license there (Unless you already have one?) as well as passing the scrutiny of the rural hospital credentialing committee where you’ll be working. And yes, everyone seems to want original copies of the intern year you did 15 years ago at the hospital that has since closed. You feel my pain?

There is good news and bad news about this. The good news is that the Locums agencies have hired staff to complete the medical license and credentialing paperwork for you. That is part of the “value” they bring to you as an agency. The bad news is that some of their staff can’t spell. Or they get the chronological order of your residency/fellowship years wrong, etc. thus generating MORE work for you in the long run, correcting errors rather than filling in blanks.

The middle road is to fill out the paperwork correctly yourself the first time, and then offer copies to the agency staff for future licensure/credentialing. They can transcribe better than synthesize, so this seems to be the best way to go, IMO.

Hospital credentialing is nuanced, and depends on the culture of the local hospital in terms of how many references they require and how much documentation detail they request. Some hospitals are swift and lean, others comb through your background as if you are a likely convicted felon.

That being said, one thing is certain – if you plan to work several different locums assignments your referrers are going to be nagged TO DEATH. Everyone needs 2-3 professional references who will be called/contacted mercilessly, first by the Locums agency to make sure you’re not a “problem person” (as described in Part 1), then by the hospital who is considering hiring you (not that they’ve committed yet), then by the credentialing committee (if you pass approval in the first round), then by the state licensing body. So for every potential locums assignment, your professional reference will likely be contacted 4 times, and asked to vouch for you verbally or on paper/via fax. Imagine how many assignments you’ll do in a year and the math gets pretty scary. Be sure your references are ok with all this attention… and give them fair warning. If you can, spread the pain and broaden your reference base.

Q. What advice do you have for Locums agencies?

1. Physicians talk. Whatever sneaky deal-making you’re doing (such as paying people different rates for the same gig or getting a 50% premium at a desperate hospital and then not sharing it with us in salary upgrade) is going to come to light at some point, so keep your nose clean. Please be honest about problem hospitals and work conditions. I know that clients mislead you about work conditions and expectations so as to lure locums to their facility – but try to go the extra mile to figure out in advance if the doctors are really going to be asked to see 16 patients a day or 26 patients a day. Because if we get to the site and we’re being abused and overworked, we associate the negative experience with the agency that put us there. Then you try to wheedle and cajole us into finishing the assignment based on the contract we signed so you can make your cut. Meanwhile we’re putting our careers in danger because we can’t do a thorough job and might miss something important. Not good for physician retention. Better yet, just say no to crisis clients. The money isn’t worth it.

2. Treat us right and you’ll make more money in the long run. I know you’re under pressure to save money on our travel and hotels, but you also have some flexibility in the room rate that you’ll consider. Put us in a nicer hotel for a few bucks extra per night and the whole experience will seem a little brighter. Put us on the preferred rental car program so we don’t have to wait for 2 hours in a rental car line after a full day of cross-country travel. Upgrade us to a full size car rather than the beige Corolla we have to live in for months.  These little things end up costing you only a few hours of our total billing, but make your agency our go-to employer.

3. Pay us on time. It’s so simple, and costs you nothing. If an agency takes 3-4 months to pay me for an assignment, and then the billing is inaccurate (missing hours)… I’m going to choose another agency next time. Your value to me is partly in the ease of payment – a direct deposit a week from when I fax my time sheets sends me the message that you have your act together and are respectful of my time. Making me sift through miss-billed records from half a year ago is just not acceptable.

4. Try to understand why we whine. Locums work is not easy. We are often separated from our friends and family, in an unfamiliar setting, learning complicated hospital processes with patients who are sick and dying. We don’t know if the nurses or consultants are competent while we ourselves are under intense scrutiny until the staff gets to know us. We have to build trust, navigate complicated electronic medical records systems, satisfy hospital coding and billing demands, and keep a ward full of patients (with their team of specialists whom we’ve yet to meet) on the path to healing. All this, and we are legally responsible for everything that goes on in the lives of those under our care. When we get home to our Days Inn at the end of our 15 hour shift in our beige Toyota Corolla to find their exercise equipment broken and the lobby overrun with monster-truck rally participants, we may be a tad whiny. Please don’t think ill of us for that. Just do what you can to help us feel better. We, and our patients, will thank you.


Dr. Jones is available on a consulting basis through Better Health LLC. She may be reached at

Life Disruption Caused By Cancer During The Holiday Season

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? —Every, every minute?”

-Thornton Wilder

His cancer was growing and his symptoms were progressing alarmingly. As holiday music played in the background, I searched the calendar to see how rapidly his surgery could be scheduled. The young man and his wife first looked relieved when we found a surgical opening in the coming week, but their faces fell as they realized that he would spend December 25th in the hospital. Family plans were to be put on hold that year. The future was uncertain.

It has always seemed to me that ”cancer” causes more life disruption during this time of year. The quickened pace of life and the family expectations, particularly when small children are involved, push people to their limits.

On the other hand, Read more »

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