Why managing physicians is like herding cats

One cold winter night many years ago, someone dropped off a calico cat and her two kittens in our snowy driveway, and we went from a two cat family to a five cat household. I learned a few things from that.

When I was a resident, two thirtysomething family docs had an office upstairs from the residency program. Ned and Peter precepted us, and they sometimes ran downstairs to ask the director, Dr. Pete, for his input when they had a tough case themselves.

It was very clear to me that Ned and Peter had a shared vision of how a practice should run, even though I’m sure they weren’t clones of each other. They also seemed to be really in tune with the residency, and one of them later became its director.

My first job after graduation was with two middle-aged doctors in a small Maine mill town. They covered seamlessly for each other, even though they seemed like very different people. I realized quickly that my comfort level with some of the things they tackled in the hospital was never going to catch up with theirs, so I moved on to where I am now the medical director. I did express my discomfort with handling patients in the intensive care unit, for example, and they did tell me they were considering giving it up, but not right away. I was their employee, and although they offered me a partnership, they were the majority and the founding partners.

The clinic where I ended up spending most of my career is very different, and very typical for medical practices today. We are a nonprofit organization with a board and a chief executive officer. I may be the medical director, but the physicians and nurse practitioners here really answer more to the CEO than to me.

The providers here are a little like my one-time herd of five cats, gathered under one roof by circumstance rather than from a clear and particular desire to work with each other. Sure, Dr. Brown was my doctor when he worked in the city many years ago, and he came here in part because he knew me, and Dr. Kim had practiced in the next town over and had been curious about us. He did call and talk to me before going very far in negotiations with our CEO, just to make sure he’d fit in, but others came here because of our location or some other reason besides knowing that we would all work well together or that we shared some deep practice philosophy.

We are not a group practice in the sense that group practices were formed when I started out. So my job as medical director is a lot more like herding cats than leading a group of like-minded visionaries in the early days of the new specialty of family practice. Also, because I care for a full compliment of patients alongside my colleagues and depend on their coverage and cooperation, I am in no position to be heavy-handed in leading our medical staff. I may work to set an example in some cases, by building consensus in others, but I seldom lay down commandments on stone tablets.

That is a stark contrast to Elijah Lamb at Cityside Medical Group. At his hospital owned mega practice, he isn’t just the medical director, but a hospital vice-president of medical affairs. He is more clearly in the chain of command, and his medical staff knows it. He even fires people.

Right now, a newly hired provider at my clinic is asking that we not contradict her antibiotic stewardship when she sees another provider’s patient for a bronchitis. I did a “practice style inventory” several months ago, and we all said we didn’t prescribe antibiotics for a bronchitis of fewer than seven days duration. But Karen knows we often do, and she feels we undercut her by giving in to patients that call us the day after seeing her.

We have also had several exchanges and meetings about how we handle opioid prescriptions. When one of my colleagues reduced her hours in semiretirement, Dr. Kim inherited many of her patients, and started tapering some off their opiates. Much unrest followed. We had to sit down to find common ground about whether patients could switch from Dr. Kim to another provider just to see if they would reinstate their opioids. We decided, along with our CEO, not to allow internal transfers of that nature. Anything else would likely tear apart the fabric of our group, we reasoned. Interestingly, the retiring physician told us that the patients Dr. Kim had tapered off opioids were people she herself had contemplated doing the same with. She just hadn’t done it yet.

Do I wish my job was more like Dr. Lambs? Would I be happy seeing a few token patients and spending the rest of my time being a medical administrator? I don’t think so, no more than I would have preferred not to live with five cats of different disposition.

As a doctor, I never tell my patients what to do. I outline, explain and support my patients in choosing between options. That is how I act toward my colleagues, too. Just like with integrating five cats, it may not be the quickest way to get things done, but in the big scheme of things, it is the only way that really works if you want peace in your house.

“A Country Doctor” is a family physician who blogs at A Country Doctor Writes:.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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