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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.

New Doctor Considering Primary Care? Show Me The Money

There are plenty of reasons why medical students aren’t choosing primary care as careers. Lack of role models. Perception of professional dissatisfaction. High burnout rate among generalist doctors. Long, uncontrollable hours.

But what about salary? Until now, the wage disparity between primary care doctors and specialists has only been an assumed reason; the evidence was largely circumstantial. After all, the average medical school debt exceeds $160,000, so why not go into a specialty that pays several times more, with better hours?

Thanks to Robert Centor, there’s a study published in Medscape that shows how money affects career choice among medical students. Here’s what they found:

Sixty-six percent of students did not apply for a primary care residency. Of these, 30 percent would have applied for primary care if they had been given a median bonus of $27,500 before and after residency. Forty-one percent of students would have considered applying for primary care for a median military annual salary after residency of $175,000.

And in conclusion:

U.S. medical students, particularly those considering primary care but selecting controllable lifestyle specialties, are more likely to consider applying for a primary care specialty if provided a financial incentive.

Money matters. There should be no shame for new doctors to admit that. After all, they’re human too, and respond to financial incentives just like anyone else. And when most medical students graduate with mortgage-sized school loans, salary should be a factor when considering a career. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*

Physician Burnout: Depression And Suicide In Surgeons

I wrote last year in USA Today about the impact of physician burnout. Not only do doctors suffer, but so do their patients.

Burnout starts early in residency, with entering interns having a depression rate of 4 percent, similar to the general public. But after the first year of residency, that number balloons to 25 percent.

Now another study adds fuel to this disturbing trend. A paper published in the Archives of General Surgery looks at the prevalence of physician burnout in surgeons:

In a national survey, one in 16 surgeons reported contemplating suicide, researchers reported.

An increased risk of suicidal ideation was linked to three factors: depression, burnout, and the perception of having made a recent major medical error …

… But only about one in four of those who reported thinking about taking their own lives sought psychiatric or psychologic help.

The rate of suicidal ideation in surgeons, at 6.3 percent, was almost double of that in the general population (3.3 percent).

Physician burnout is a phenomenon that’s often ignored. The practice environment is deteriorating, with increasing time pressures and worsening bureaucratic burdens. Little of this is addressed in the national health conversation, or in the recently passed health reform law. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*

ER Doctors And Burnout

Via Balkans Business News:

One in two emergency care doctors will suffer a burnout during their career, according to a survey of French physicians, published online in Emergency Medicine Journal. The research was funded in part by the NEXT NURSES’ EXIT STUDY (‘Sustaining working ability in the nursing profession – investigation of premature departure from work’) project, which received more than EUR 2 million under the ‘Quality of life and management of living resources’ Programme of the EU’s Fifth Framework Programme (FP5).

The responses showed that the prevalence of burnout was high, with 1 in 2 emergency care doctors identified as suffering from it, compared with more than 4 out of 10 of the representative sample. Physicians had the highest burnout rate in the two age groups, between 35 and 44 and between 45 and 54.

Expectedly, it’s international…

*This blog post was originally published at GruntDoc*

Physician Lifestyle Is Criteria When Choosing A Medical Specialty

Medical students today consider lifestyle an essential criteria when choosing a specialty. It’s become a cliche that most are looking towards the ROAD (radiology, ophthalmology, anesthesiology and dermatology) to happiness.

There’s been some recent media attention at how women are lured to specialties that offer a greater balance between their family lifestyle and professional demands. Claudia Golden, a Harvard economics professor, recently noted that,

high-paying careers that offer more help in balancing work and family are the ones that end up luring the largest numbers of women. Surprisingly, colon and rectal surgery is one of these, because of rapid growth in routine colonoscopies that can be scheduled in advance, giving doctors control over their time. Goldin says 31% of colon and rectal surgeons under 35 years of age were female in 2007, compared with only 3% of those ages 55 to 64, and 12% of those ages 45 to 54, reflecting the fact that younger women are flocking to the field.

Of course, what’s not said is the grueling training that it takes to become a colorectal surgeon — but the numbers cited above do not lie. The new generation of doctors — both men and women — want greater control of their time. That means more shift-work and a predictable call schedule. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at KevinMD.com*

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