A student reached out to me recently, looking for a primary care physician willing to host him for a four-week clinical clerkship. I used to be a preceptor for both of the local medical schools but haven’t hosted anyone since I stopped practicing traditional primary care more than a decade ago. A call to the primary care clerkship office revealed that a computer glitch brought me back from the virtual dead, along with a number of physicians who are no longer able to host, and we were able to get it straightened out pretty quickly.
Still, I enjoyed chatting with the student, who had never heard of clinical informatics and had no idea what a physician might do besides conducting research or seeing patients clinically.
I was a little shocked by this since the medical school he attends is affiliated with a health system that just spent nearly half a billion dollars on an EHR overhaul. He’s already in the middle of his first clinical clerkship year, so theoretically he has been exposed to the hospital and countless resident and attending physicians complaining about the EHR or how it works. I would have hoped that the orientation to the EHR might have included an outline of how to request changes in the system, which would theoretically include mention of physicians serving on committees or in leadership roles who would have input into any requested changes. Apparently none of these things happened or were ever discussed, or my potential student missed the mention.
In hindsight, I think it’s more likely the former, since the hospital (and health system) in question still does not have a functional CMIO role. They have a number of clinical VPs and other titled people who are supposed to play a role in the governance of clinical informatics, but the reality is they have a number of other things on their plates that takes them away from actual informatics work. From what I understand from my peers, they don’t have functional governance structures and part of the IT team is devoted to just building what is needed to silence the squeaky wheels. The community physicians are up in arms about changes that are put in place for the academic faculty, and there’s a lot of duplicate work going on as they build different work streams without a unified approach.
I think the student enjoyed hearing about alternative careers for primary care physicians, especially once we talked a little about healthcare finance in the US and the high level of burnout among primary care physicians. His school isn’t doing a good job educating him on that topic either, since he had little understanding of Medicare or Medicaid or commercial insurance and the pressures felt by physicians as they try to navigate our healthcare non-system on behalf of their patients.
I suppose this might be one of the key goals of the primary care clinical clerkship, to expose students to such things since they’re probably not seeing it in the halls of the ivory tower. On the other hand, especially with the new push for premedical students to already have clinical experience before they apply to medical school, I was surprised by how little he knew.
He was also unaware of the salary limitations for primary care physicians. When I asked him if he had a ballpark idea what he might make in practice, he quoted a starting salary that was more than one and a half times that of an independent primary care physician with a well-established practice and an excellent payer mix with minimal Medicare and no Medicaid.
In my heart, I don’t want students to choose their specialties based on earnings potential, but I don’t want them to be surprised, especially when they’ll be leaving school with nearly half a million dollars in student loan debt. Granted, physicians still make a very good living, but many of us now in practice didn’t graduate with anywhere near that kind of debt. I was lucky with no undergrad debt, but still had to borrow the entire amount for medical school over and above what I had saved from jobs at the golf course, the donut shop, editing people’s term papers, and substitute teaching.
We talked a lot about how I came to be in clinical informatics and how I see the role. Usually I summarize it as being a translator or mediator – being able to work with clinical teams, operations teams, and the technology teams to identify ways that we can better the mission of patient care. Sometimes it’s process improvement work, sometimes it’s deep technology design work, and sometimes it’s just handholding for providers who are at their wit’s end. There are days when it’s sheer boredom (lab interface crosswalk build – if you’ve never tried it, you’re missing out) and some days are exhilarating (go-lives gone well). The rest of the time can be a roller coaster, but I wouldn’t trade what I do for a more traditional medical career.
I’m sorry I wasn’t able to teach him how to be a family physician, or to share how enjoyable it can be to take care of patients over time and to get to know them and their families. I like to think that he did learn something over the course of our conversations, though, even if it was just that he needs to do a little more investigation before he decides on a specialty. He has a few months left before he has to start applying for residency positions, when seems relatively short when you’re deciding how you want to spend the rest of your life.
I also gave him my standard advice: learn about the business of healthcare; learn about personal finances; don’t spend “like a doctor” when you get out of school; and find some non-work-related activities that will keep you company for the rest of your life. I was lucky to have learned many of those lessons along the way, but some of my peers, and many non-physicians as well, learned those topics the hard way.
I wonder how the medical school would receive the idea of a class covering these topics. Healthcare has certainly changed in the time I’ve been out of school, and not always for the better. There are driving forces that many in the industry don’t understand, whether they’re clinical or not.
On the other hand, isolating students from the reality of what they’re getting into might be useful to maintain the physician pipeline. I know quite a few of us who wouldn’t have done it had we known then what we know now. I see some of those former colleagues in hospital administration roles, industry roles, etc. You can always tell the people who really enjoy patient care because they often fight for the ability to keep their toes in the water, even if it’s only a couple of days a month. Of course, not all employers are sympathetic, and many more are forced to give up their clinical aspirations.
What does this have to do with the larger topic of healthcare IT? It’s food for thought to help us understand the force that shape clinicians and why they might act the way they do when faced with uncomfortable or unwanted change, or when some bit of technology puts them over the edge. Maybe if they were better integrated into the healthcare IT ecosystem earlier in their training, we would be fighting fewer (or at least different) battles. Maybe they wouldd feel more empowered to demand better usability and not just go along with what their hospital says they are going to use. Maybe they would see “the IT people” as less of a threat and more of a team working towards common goals.
How does your organization onboard medical students? Do they understand what the technology teams do? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.