I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my work lately. I’ve been doing consulting for a while now, starting with side work even when I was a CMIO. I left that ersatz glamour to do consulting full time and it’s been an adventure.
My clients are generally good to work with, and that is a side effect of being your own boss and having the ability to terminate clients who are difficult or want to play mind games. Still, they get stressed out like anyone does, and often the consultant is expected to try to fix issues whether they’re in scope or not. That creates some tension around whether I should allow them to change the scope of work or whether I need to send them in another direction, especially when they try to game the system to get their new problem included for free.
Everyone is under significant economic pressures and I understand where they are coming from. Just because you’re in healthcare, though, doesn’t mean that we can give you services for free. Especially as a small consulting firm, even small discounts can make a big dent in our bottom line. We’re in the purest of “eat what you kill” models and even though we have low overhead, we still have bills to pay like everyone else. Fortunately, my partner and I are both fairly frugal and we’re not in this business for the money (although it is nice at times). But with increasing financial pressures due to the shift from volume to value, many more of our client-facing conversations are about money rather than vision, mission, or strategy.
Our clients feel increasingly like they’re in the crosshairs with payer audits, federal and state regulations, anti-kickback worries, medico-legal issues, and legislative uncertainty. Not to mention there are also decreasing contract rates, more bundled payment initiatives, and the ever-present worry about the inefficiencies of EHR. For the most part, we can help clients tackle many of their stressors, but the fact that healthcare delivery continues to be in a state of rapid change is something that we can’t do a lot about. Of course, we can help the clients with strategic planning and trying to future-proof their businesses, but that’s a big change for clients who thought they would be independent practitioners forever.
I work for myself, which has a lot of perks. I can generally control my travel schedule and have no problem saying no, although clients have been less flexible the more they are stressed. We have a solid plan to divide and conquer when our clients have needs for specific expertise, although we can cross cover each other enough that we don’t ever feel we are working without a net. Still, I thought we’d be at a different place by now in the evolution of healthcare. Unfortunately, we’re still grappling with some of the same concepts that we grappled with decades ago. They were challenging then, but throw the technology piece at them as well and they can be even more messy.
I’ve been in the healthcare technology leadership space for more than a decade and I’m still fighting the fact that my clients (and their patients) don’t have full access to their medical records. In a lot of ways, they can’t even cobble together a medical record because of the barriers to sharing that are all around them. I’m personally enrolled in four patient portals. One has two of my physicians on it, but they don’t share any data. It might be better that we’re not sharing data, though — my new primary care physician sent me a summary of care record, but unfortunately it has multiple family history errors and even gave me some new diagnoses that I never knew I had, including a pulmonary embolus and clear cell carcinoma.
Because of the crazy way our payment system works, many providers game the system to gain the maximum reimbursement possible. Anyone who has experienced provider-based billing knows what I’m talking about, as do those who have pushed the boundaries on time-based services to achieve higher codes. This creates a lot of stress in the ambulatory space as everyone struggles to figure out how they’re going to add headcount for care management and preventive services while fee-for-service payments are decreasing. Although there are some programs seeking to provide those payments up front, such as the Comprehensive Primary Care Plus program, providers are constantly under the threat of missing some kind of documentation, reporting deadline, or other hurdle that might mean they have to pay back those monies even though they were trying to do the right thing by their patients and communities.
We’ve thrown a lot of precious time and billions of dollars at a healthcare system that isn’t generating the return on investment that we need it to. Divorced from the payment scheme by insurance and other third parties, the majority of patients have no idea whether their providers are gaming the system or not. Is the price they’re charging fair? Is the patient receiving value? It’s hard to tell. In many parts of the country, the only entity that has even close to a full picture of the patient is the payer, and that’s a shame. I’m watching my friends who are only 20-25 years into their careers plan for early retirement when they realize selling out to a big health system wasn’t the answer to their struggles with independent practice.
When physicians are together, we talk about the predicaments we’re in and whether the primary care physicians can hold on long enough for the balance to tip in their favor, helping them come off the hamster wheel and be able to truly connect with their patients again. I know of many physicians who have gone into politics – talk about going from the frying pan into the fire. Although most of them are altruistic, one in my state makes spectacularly poor decisions about a variety of issues. For those in the trenches, especially after the last election cycle, there is plenty uncertainty around tomorrow even if they make it through today.
Some days it’s harder than others to grind through the muck. Whether you’re seeing patients or whether you’re trying to help practices and organizations survive an obstacle course that would make an American Ninja Warrior take cover, it’s tough. I miss the days when we were adding technology to our lives because it solved problems, not because we were forced to and certainly not if it added hardship. Although I see the bigger picture and try to translate it to our clients, it’s getting harder to convince people to hang in there and keep moving forward.
I relish my office days, when I put on my hourly employee hat and just see patients to the best of my ability. For the most part, I make patients’ bad days better and they’re grateful. It reminds me of why I wanted to be a doctor in the first place. But I know that behind the scenes there is still a seedy underbelly of coding, billing, modifiers, and more. I’m spoiled by how well my partners run our practice and spend a lot of time thinking about how much I’d like to bottle their leadership skills and atomize their fortitude around my clients.
Although it feels like healthcare is behind where it should be, it also feels like we’re on the verge of something big. We do things every day that no one had heard of when I was in medical school, and that’s a good feeling. It makes me want to stay in this game another month, another year, another five just to see what happens.
If you could bottle one thing and spread it all around healthcare, what would it be? Email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.