Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Surprise costs

OK, I haven't written in a while, mostly because I've been swamped at work and preoccupied. I'm going to have minor surgery tomorrow, and I'm nervous even though it's no big deal. But now I have to vent.

A little background: I'll be having the surgery done at a large hospital which has a busy outpatient surgery center that handles thousands of patients per year, a well-oiled machine. So here's my gripe: I received a phone call today from the billing department of the hospital where I'll be having my surgery, exactly 24 hrs before the scheduled time of surgery. I was told that I needed to pay approximately $1000 tomorrow before I have surgery, the "facility cost" that is not covered by my health insurance, payable by check, cash, or credit card. Now, even though I'm not thrilled about it, I am fortunate enough to have a steady job that provides me with a solid income; I also guessed that I would have to pay something so I was somewhat prepared mentally. What stunned me was that I received so little notice. The surgery was scheduled more than two weeks ago, and I gave the hospital my insurance information at that time. Presumably, I could have been notified shortly thereafter about the fee or even given an estimate of the fees at the time of scheduling. I know many people who would have a hard time paying this large fee. Perhaps the hospital arranges payment plans for those who can't afford a lump sum payment, but I do feel that advance notice is critical and courteous. For those who have a hard time paying, advance notice gives them a chance to speak to family members or their bank about borrowing money, or to put aside money from a paycheck or two specifically for the surgery or to put off making another big purchase. I wonder if it's done like this everywhere. I do know that the same 24 hr notice was given to a member of my staff who had surgery at another hospital just a few weeks ago, which added a lot of stress to an already stressful situation.

I think that especially in these challenging economic times, all of us need to be considerate of each other's needs. There, that's my piece. I'll be back online in a day or two to let you know what it's like being a patient, a good reminder for all of us docs around who sometimes forget!!

And by the way, GO TARHEELS!!!!!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Will EHR become a reality?

I am very excited at the thought that I will eventually have EHR at my office. Sadly, knowing my organization, it will be at midnight on the night of the cut-off, probably in 2015. I have been clamoring loudly for EHR since I started at this job in 2005, as have other physicians in the organization; however, our administration has been resisting, stating start-up costs as the main reason we haven't moved ahead. Now, with money in the national budget set aside specifically for achieving the goal of universal EHRs, perhaps we can start thinking about options.

I recently received communication about a website that reviews electronic medical records. I was intrigued, so I checked it out. Software Advice, a website that reviews electronic medical records, makes some interesting points about the future we are facing, with late adopters joining in the fray at the last minute. Will these providers (and organizations):

  • Truly believe in the value of an EHR over traditional paper charts?
  • Take a leadership role in advocating adoption of the new EHR in their practice?
  • Change their old work flows to match the best practices in leading EHRs?
  • Take part in intensive training to learn the new system?
  • Ride out the difficult stages of new software adoption and change management?
I think that these are valid points, and I will answer each question from my perspective regarding our organization. I think that some of the physicians and mid-level providers do see the value in EHR, but the administration does not. In terms of leadership in advocating for implementation, we have two leaders, our Medical Chief of Staff and our head pharmacist. I think those of us who believe in EHR will be willing to change the way we work, train to learn the new system, and keep working with it until it runs smoothly. I don't think this split will be by age, but rather by comfort level with computer technology. I had the advantage of growing with computers from before they were common (and the hard drive was a cassette player), and although I'm not an expert on computers by any stretch, I enjoy learning new programs. Having worked as a transcriptionist, I'm also a fairly quick typer, so I'm not slowed down by having to use a keyboard vs a pen.

They offer a five point plan to help smooth the transition which relates to the five points above. The organization should have a project manager to coordinate the transition from start to finish. I propose that there be two managers, one medical and one technical, because I think that both perspectives are necessary for successful implementation. Next, the team of doctors needs to be rallied, as well as the patients. The transition will hit bumps, and all team members, from the front desk staff to the patients themselves, need to be prepared and understand that EHR will be an excellent solution, eventually. Training will obviously be key. The better the training provided on the program, the more likely the transition will be smooth. So far, I think this will be one of our biggest obstacles, based on the training the staff have received on other new electronic programs, which is none to be exact. Their fourth point is to keep it simple. Amen to that. The transition may need to be gradual, and the EHR will likely evolve as the process goes forward. Finally, the practice will change, be it by medical staff carrying around tablets PCs or by having PCs in the exam rooms. This will require adjustment by medical assistants, nursing, providers, and families. I happen to strongly believe that EHR will be a safer, more efficient way to practice medicine, but I am bracing myself for the transition.

I do, however, disagree with the authors of the website on one main point. They feel that EHRs should not be free, that people only value what they pay for. While I see their point, I think that for certain organizations like community health centers, the cost of establishing an EHR is absolutely prohibitive. I know that the money will eventually be re-couped by improved billing and improved efficiency, but the start up capital is a real challenge. In addition, if this is something that is going to be required, at least a subsidy needs to be available to help. Maybe there can be a basic form of EHR which is available free-of-cost to all providers, and then practices that can afford a version with more bells and whistles can pay extra. I don't know if this is the right solution, but it's just a suggestion.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Subspecialist shortages

The news is full of stories about an ever-shrinking group of pediatric specialists, rising average ages of these specialists, and the overall critical situation we are. I also happen to work in a state with a tremendous shortage of doctors, both primary care and specialist care. Needless to say, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the predicament we are in.

The first things that comes to mind as a solution to this problem is to re-examine the current fellowship curricula. It used to be that different fellowships were different lengths, varying from one year to three, depending on the specialty. About fourteen years ago, the American Board of Pediatrics (ABP) made the decision to standardize the length of all pediatric fellowships to three years. I often wonder how much of an impact this has had on the number of graduating specialists. Please don't get me wrong, I think that certain fields require three years of training in addition to the three years of residency, i.e. pediatric intensive care, but others may not. Research plays into this length, I realize, and I know that research funding is very important to post-graduate education programs. When I was checking out the ABP website, I did learn that there is a way to do a fast-track fellowship for those people who already have documented research or other time in the field they're going into. For example, I might be able to do a developmental pediatrics fellowship in two years because I have a master's degree in early intervention. However, this only applies to a small pool of physicians.

As a resident, a pediatrician makes approximately $50,000/yr. During this period of training, one is also required to start paying off college and medical school loans; some residents also have families to support . In the current economic crisis, buying a house may not be an option anymore as it has become so much more difficult to get a loan, so one may be paying large sums in rent. Salaries increase a little bit during each additional year of training but not significantly. Then, finally when fellowship training is complete, depending on whether one chooses academic practice vs private practice, one may end up earning less than a private pediatrician and working more hours, and certainly earning less than almost any other type of physician except for family practice. This, after four years of college, four years of medical school, and six years of training. If one were to think of this as an investment, it is not a very high-yielding investment (then again, what is these days?). I know that it's "not all about money," but I feel strongly that time and money are realistic factors that medical students and residents take into consideration. I know this is going to sound cynical, but although passion is wonderful, it doesn't put food on the table.

I guess what I'm arguing for is that the ABP reconsider it's decision to standardize all fellowships to three years; what fits one specialty may not necessarily fit all. I would love to see a dialogue on this topic with specialists and generalists alike weighing in. Sadly, I don't know that this is going to happen, as there is so much else going on during these tumultuous times, and hopefully all of us will be focusing on helping President Obama revamp our health care system.