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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.

More Unintended Consequences Of Digital Data: How An EMR Gave My Patient Syphilis

I used to be a big believer in the transformative power of digital data in medicine. In fact, I devoted the past decade of my life to assisting the “movement” towards better record keeping and shared data. It seemed intuitive that breaking down the information silos in healthcare would be the first logical step in establishing price transparency, promoting evidence-based practices, and empowering patients to become more engaged in their care decisions. Unfortunately I was very wrong.

Having now worked with a multitude of electronic medical records systems at hospitals around the country, one thing is certain: they are doing more harm than good. I’m not sure that this will change “once we get the bugs out” because the fundamental flaw is that electronic medical records require data entry and intelligent curation of information, and that becomes an enormous time-suck for physicians. It forces us away from human interaction, thus reducing our patients’ chances of getting a correct diagnosis and sensible treatment plan.

How bad is it? The reality on the ground is that most hospitals are struggling enormously with EMR implementation. There are large gaps in the technology’s ability to handle information transfer, resulting in increased costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars per small hospital system, not to mention the tragically hilarious errors that are introduced into patient records at break neck pace.

At one hospital, the process for discharging a patient requires that the physician type all the discharge summary information into the EMR and then read it into a dictation system so that it can be transcribed by a team in India (cheaper than US transcription service) and returned to the hospital in another part of the EMR. The physician then needs to go into the new document and remove all the typos and errant formatting so that it resembles their original discharge summary note. In one of my recent notes the Indian transcriptionist misheard my word for “hydrocephalus” and simply entered “syphilis” as the patient’s chief diagnosis. If I hadn’t caught the error with a thorough reading of my reformatted note, who knows how long this inaccurate diagnosis would have followed the poor patient throughout her lifetime of hospital care?

Another hospital has an entire wing of its main building devoted to an IT team. I accidentally discovered their “Star Trek” facility on my way to radiology. Situated in a dark room surrounded by enough flat panel monitors to put a national cable network to shame, about 40 young tech support engineers were furiously working to keep the EMR from crashing on a daily basis – an event which halts all order processing from the ER to the ICU. Ominous reports of the EMR’s instability were piped over the entire hospital PA system, warning staff when they could expect screen freezes and data entry blockages. Doctors and nurses scurried to enter their orders and complete documentation during pauses in the network overhaul. It was like a scene from a futuristic movie where humans are harnessed for work by a centralized computer nexus.

At yet another hospital, EMR-required data entry fields regularly interrupt patient throughput. For example, a patient could not be given their discharge prescriptions without the physician indicating (in the EMR) whether each of them is a tablet or a capsule. As patients and their family members stand by the nursing desk, eager to be discharged home, their physician is furiously reviewing their OTC laxative prescriptions trying to click the correct box so that the computer will allow the transfer of the entire prescription list to the designated pharmacy. When I asked about the insanity of this practice, a helpful IT hospital specialist explained that the “capsule vs tablet” field was required by Allscripts in order to meet interoperability requirements with our hospital’s EMR. This one field requirement probably resulted in hundreds of extra hours of physician time per day throughout the hospital system, without any enhancement in patient care or safety.

For those of you EMR evangelists in Washington, I’d encourage you to take a long, cold look at what’s happening to healthcare on the ground because of these digital data initiatives. My initial enthusiasm has turned to exasperation and near despondency as I spend my days as a copy editor for an Indian transcription service, trying to prevent patients from being labeled as syphilitics while worrying about whether or not the medicine they’re taking is classified as a tablet or a capsule in a system where I may not be able to enter any orders at all if the central tech command is fixing software instability in the Star Trek room.

Paralyzed Man Wants To Know: “What’s Your Excuse?”

I have meet several amazing people at my new job.  Here is one of them:  Richard Vaughn (photo credit).  The poster isn’t accurate any longer, the 12 should read 20.

Richard is the IT guy at my work place.  He broke his back at age 17.  This hasn’t kept him from having a full life.

……Shortly after graduation as a 17 year old, a severe accident – a fall of roughly 85 feet from a scaffolding – left me paralyzed and in a wheelchair. This was in the early 1970s. It was suggested that I enter one of several “special schools” for the handicapped. There, I was told, I might learn a vocation and become a “contributing member of society.” Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Suture for a Living*

“E-Visits” With Patients: For Greedy Doctors Or Not?

Dr. Wes (a cardiology blogger whom all should read) wrote a very compelling post about technology and the bondage it can create for doctors:

The devaluation of doctors’ time continues unabated.

As we move into our new era of health care delivery with millions more needing physician time (and other health care provider’s time, for that matter) –- we’re seeing a powerful force emerge –- a subtle marketing of limitless physician availability facilitated by the advance of the electronic medical record, social media, and smartphones.

Doctors, you see, must be always present, always available, always giving.

These sound like dire words, but the degree to which it has resonated around the Web among doctors is telling. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Musings of a Distractible Mind*

Patient Participation In EMRs Can Improve Efficiency

Our office has been on Electronic Medical Records (EMR) for nearly thirteen years.  We see a high volume of patients, keep our overhead down, and are able to be quite successful financially.  All of the “EMR is impossible” and “EMR makes things worse” stuff you read around the web are disproved quickly with a step into our office.  We implemented EMR successfully in a private practice setting without help from an economic stimulus, a hospital system, or a magic wand.

Not that it was easy; we went through many years of struggle to get to where we are today.  We struggled mainly because we were exploring unknown territory.  We had very few other successful EMR implementations to learn from.  We used slow computers and programming developed in the pre-Internet era.  We made huge mistakes and struggled at times to make our monthly budget.

But we did it, and practices implementing now can learn from my and others’ success.  Probably the main lesson we learned is to put office function ahead of implementation.  Since we are a business, we must stay profitable while implementing.  Since we are practicing medicine, we must never compromise quality in the process.  This meant that we implemented over time, focusing on parts that would either improve our process or at least not bring us down.

Now we are at the position I thought might never come: survival is no longer in question, so we can dream.  We don’t have to act defensively, we can push the envelope.  We can afford to ask the question: “How can we build the best medical experience for our patients?”  We can imagine a destination and actually attempt to get there.

The ideal destination is one in which our patients’ care is improved by maximizing efficiency on our end.  Obviously I don’t want to make things harder for our practice, I want to make things easier.  But the goal of care is ultimately centered on the patient, not us.  So is there a way to accomplish both goals?  I think there is, and I think that our EMR is the tool that makes it possible.

Here are our goals in the process:

  • Simplify how things are done
  • Always have the right information available
  • Make communication clear and easy
  • Achieve the highest quality possible

I’m sure some think this is just idealism and can’t happen in reality.  I agree and disagree.  No system can be perfect, but the current healthcare system is so inefficient and ineffective that huge gains can be made.  The best way to show that is to get down to specifics.  Here is where our practice is heading:

Simplify

The thing that takes the most time away from actual patient care is documentation.  Doctors are paid by the volume of documentation, not its quality.  Still, the main purpose of a record is to accurately know what is going on with the person facing you in the exam room.  Unfortunately, the patient is continually changing, so some information is only accurate for a short time.  Has the patient seen a specialist or been in the hospital?  Have the medications been changed, or just not taken?  Have they changed jobs, quit smoking, or gotten married?  Did their sister just get diagnosed with cancer?  The task of keeping this information up to date is extremely difficult.

Patients are the ones who know these things best, but they are only passive participants in the process.  To keep the record accurate, I must ask them all the right questions on a regular basis.  This cuts into time that should be devoted to care.  So why can’t the patients be allowed to maintain this part of the record?  Why shouldn’t they have access to parts of their record and the ability to correct errors?  Here is how we see this happening:

  • Certain parts of the record should be available for patients to review online.  Basic demographics, medications and allergies, family history, and lifestyle information is a good start.  If something new has happened, the patient can either update this information directly (like marital or smoking status) or notify the office of changes (like medication lists).
  • If the patient doesn’t update it online, then they can do so when they come into the office (while sitting in the waiting room).  Some people will undoubtedly not want to do this, but a significant percent will, decreasing the workload on the office while maximizing the quality of information.
  • Patients should be able to communicate important information to the office online.  If they go to the ER or see a specialist, if their blood pressure or sugars are high, they should be able to send that information directly to the physician.

Another area of potential gain is the gathering of information for a visit.  When a person comes to the office, they have to answer a series of questions related to the visit:

  • what are the symptoms the are having?
  • Are there any other symptoms?
  • How have they been since the last visit?

Gathering this information is essential, but it is one of the main causes of delays.  Here is how we want to employ technology to improve this process:

  • Put kiosks in our waiting room where patients can provide information, such as:
    • History of their present illness.  If they are sick, then what are the symptoms and how long have they gone on?
    • Review of systems.  What other things are going on in their health?
    • Medication and demographic review (if not done already online).
  • If patients fill out information online before coming to the office, the staff will bring them to see the doctor immediately (or at least as soon as possible).

Even 50% participation by patients in this process will have a huge impact on our office workflow.  The end result is a win-win: the patient is seen sooner, the information is more accurate, and the workload of the staff is reduced.  Will there be problems?  There always are; but the advent of ATM machines, airport kiosks, and online shopping are a few examples of process automation that have greatly improved the customer experience.  Why should medicine be different?

I am going to stop here, as I don’t want to lose you (if you haven’t already whacked the keyboard with your forehead).  Hopefully you can see that the use of technology applied smartly can help patients and medical offices at the same time.

And this is just the start.

**This post was published originally at Musings of a Distractible Mind blog.**

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