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Hardening Of The Categories: Why We Have A Shortage Of Physicians To Treat COVID-19 Patients

Because science is advancing our understanding of medicine at an exponential rate, physicians and surgeons have been turning to subspecialization as a means to narrow their required domains of expertise.  “Carving out a niche” makes sense in a profession where new research is being published at a rate of two million articles per year. Just filtering the signal from the noise can be a full time job.

However, the consequences of narrowing one’s expertise is that you lose flexibility. For example, an orthopedist who has subspecialized in the surgical management of the shoulder joint doesn’t keep her skills sharp in knee replacement surgery or other general surgical procedures that she once performed. Neurologists who focus on movement disorders become comfortable with a small subset of diseases such as Parkinson’s, but then close their doors to patients with migraines or strokes.

The continued march towards ultra-subspecialization has been a boon in urban and academic centers, but has left spotty expertise in surrounding areas and small towns. And now, the COVID-19 pandemic has unmasked the biggest downside of niche medicine: a hardening of the categories that prevents many physicians from being able to help in times of crisis. Retina specialists, plastic surgeons, rheumatologists, and radiation oncologists (to name just a few) may want to help emergency medicine physicians (EM), internists (IM), and intensivists (CCM) expand their reach as COVID cases surge and hospitals become overwhelmed. But what are they to do? They are not trained to manage airways, place central lines, or monitor renal function, and legitimately fear legal repercussions should they attempt to do so.

Medicine is fundamentally based upon apprentice-style learning – this is why we undergo years of residency training – to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with more senior experts and learn their craft under close supervision. Upon graduation from medical school, physicians are deemed ineligible to treat patients until they have practical experience under their belts. The old adage: “see one, do one, teach one” is the bedrock of how we train. So now, there needs to be a pathway available for those who have completed residency to re-train to meet the demands of this crisis and others.

Perhaps it’s a radical idea to consider pairing subspecialist physicians with current frontline COVID-19 doctors – but turfing patients to “non physician practitioners” or NPPs when access is limited to an emergency medicine specialist,  internist, or intensivist, seems to be the current plan. I believe that medical school and internship are a solid foundation for COVID management (common to all physicians), and that given a designated EM, IM, or CCM mentor, the willing subspecialists will be able to follow protocols and take on new challenges rapidly and with excellence. I hope that the government will issue more detailed “good Samaritan” type laws to protect mentors and their subspecialty partners from frivolous law suits in times of COVID (those in place are for volunteer positions only), and that the house of medicine, led by the AMA and other sub-specialty organizations, will pave the way for rapid cross-disciplinary instruction and certification.

Going forward, there should be opportunities for post-residency, mid-career physicians to complete fellowship programs outside of their sub-specialty’s usual offerings. An ophthalmologist should have the ability to spend a year studying pulmonary medicine, for example, if they want to moonlight with an ICU physician in the future. In our current system, it is very difficult to obtain a fellowship after significant time has elapsed since one’s residency training. While there are a few “re-entry programs” for physicians who haven’t practiced clinical medicine for years, there is no path established for those who simply wish to switch specialties or assist outside of their specialty in a time of crisis.

I am not arguing that a fellowship should be considered equivalent to a residency program. We may need to create a new type of physician certification that allows fellowship-trained physicians from unrelated residency programs to operate under the license of an agreeable mentor/sponsor already established in the field by virtue of medical school and residency training. This would open up employment opportunities for over-specialized physicians, while not threatening those who are residency-trained in the field. In essence, this would allow physicians to operate in the way that NPPs have been for decades, and get subspecialty physicians off the bench and into the fight against COVID and perhaps into underserved areas more effectively as well.

For those subspecialists who have become disillusioned with their field, but still enjoy medicine or surgery – their talent could be retained if there were a path to re-training. An estimated 20% of physicians would change their specialty if they could. Currently, physicians have few clinical options if they no longer wish to practice in the field in which they completed a residency. I suspect that sweeping physician burnout rates (highest among mid-career physicians) could be improved by providing opportunities for “reimagining” themselves – and course-correcting to rekindle the scientific and clinical passion that led them to apply to medical school in the first place.

This would require some mental and regulatory flexibility – which could be a good side effect of the otherwise dreadful COVID pandemic.

 

 

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*

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