Frustrations with the health care system drove me to a big change

After 18 years in private practice, many good, some not, I am making a very big change.  I am leaving my practice.

No, this isn’t my ironic way of saying that I am going to change the way I see my practice; I am really quitting my job.  The stresses and pressures of our current health care system become heavier, and heavier, making it increasingly difficult to practice medicine in a way that I feel my patients deserve.  The rebellious innovator (who adopted EMR 16 years ago) in me looked for “outside the box” solutions to my problem, and found one that I think is worth the risk.  I will be starting a solo practice that does not file insurance, instead taking a monthly “subscription” fee, which gives patients access to me.

I must confess that there are still a lot of details I need to work out, and plan on sharing the process of working these details with colleagues, consultants, and most importantly, my future patients.

Here are my main frustrations with the health care system that drove me to this big change:

  1. I don’t feel like I can offer the level of care I want for my patients.  I am far too busy during the day to slow down and give people the time they deserve.  I have over 3000 patients in my practice, and most of them only come to me when there are problems, which bothers me because I’d rather work with them to prevent the problems in the first place.
  2. There’s a disconnect between my business and my mission.  I want to be a good doctor, but I also want to pay for my kids’ college tuition (and maybe get the windshield on the car fixed).  But the only way to make enough money is to see more patients in my office, making it hard to spend time with people in the office, or to handle problems on the phone.  I have done my best to walk the line between good care and good business, but I’ve grown weary under the burden of having to make this choice patient after patient.  Why is it that I would make more money if I was a bad doctor?  Why am I penalized for caring?
  3. The increased burden of non-patient issues added to the already difficult situation.  I have to comply with E/M coding for all of my notes.  I have to comply with “Meaningful Use” criteria for my EMR.  I have to practice defensive medicine to avoid lawsuits.  I have more and more paperwork, more drug formulary problems, more patients frustrated with consultants, and less time to do it all.  My previous post about burnout was a prelude to this one; it was time to do something about my burn out: to drop out.

Here are some things that are not reasons for my big change:

  1. I am not angry with my partners.  I have been frustrated that they didn’t see things as I did, but I realize that they are not restless for change like I am.  They do believe in me (and are doing their best to help me on this new venture), but they don’t want to ride shotgun while I drive to a location yet undisclosed.
  2. I am not upset about the ACA (Obamacare).  In truth, the changes primary care has seen have been more positive than negative.  The ACA also favors the type of practice I am planning on building, allowing businesses to contract directly with direct care practices along with a high-deductible insurance to meet the requirement to provide insurance.  Now, if I did think the government could fix healthcare I would probably not be making the changes I am.  But it’s the overall dysfunctional nature of Washington that quenches my hope for significant change, not the ACA.

What will my practice look like?  Here are the cornerstones on which I hope to build a new kind of practice.

  1. I want the cost to be reasonable.  Direct Care practices generally charge between $50 and $100 per patient per month for full access.  I don’t want to limit my care to the wealthy.  I want my practice to be part of a solution that will be able to expand around the country (as it has been doing).
  2. I want to keep my patient volume manageable.  I will limit the number of patients I have (1000 being the maximum, at the present time).  I want to go home each day feeling that I’ve done what I can to help all of my patients to be healthy.
  3. I want to keep people away from health care.  As strange as this may sound, the goal of most people is to spend less time dealing with their health, not more. I don’t want to make people wait in my office, I don’t want them to go to the ER when they don’t need to.  I also don’t want them going to specialists who don’t know why they were sent, getting duplicate tests they don’t need, being put on medications that don’t help, or getting sick from illnesses they were afraid to address.  I will use phones, online forms, text messages, house calls, or whatever other means I can use to keep people as people, not health care consumers.
  4. People need access to me.  I want them to be able to call me, text me, or send an email when they have questions, not afraid that I will withhold an answer and force them to come in to see me.  If someone is thinking about going to the ER, they should be able to see what I think.  Preventing a single ER visit will save thousands of dollars, and many unnecessary tests.
  5. Patients should own their medical records.  It is ridiculous (and horrible) how we treat patient records as the property of doctors and hospitals.  It’s like a bank saying they own your money, and will give you access to it for a fee.  I should be asking my patients for access to their records, not the reverse!  This means that patients will be maintaining these records, and I am working on a way to give incentive to do so.  Why should I always have to ask for people information to update my records, when I could just look at theirs?
  6. I want this to be a project built as a cooperative between me and my patients.  Do they have better ideas on how to do things?  They should tell me what works and what does not.  Perhaps I can meet my diabetics at a grocery store and have a dietician talk about buying food.  Perhaps I can bring a child psychologist in to talk about parenting.  I don’t know, and I don’t want to answer those questions until I hear from my patients.

This is the first of a whole bunch of posts on this subject.  My hope is that the dialog started by my big change (and those of other doctors) will have bigger effects on the whole health care scene.  Even if it doesn’t, however, I plan on having a practice where I can take better care of my patients while not getting burned out in the process.

Is this scary?  Heck yeah, it’s terrifying in many ways.  But the relief to be changing from being a nail, constantly pounded by an unreasonable system, to a hammer is enormous.

Rob Lamberts is an internal medicine-pediatrics physician who blogs at More Musings (of a Distractible Kind).

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