The Doctor is the Bottleneck

By HANS DUVEFELT, MD

My Name is Doctor Bottleneck

Hello, my name is Doctor Bottleneck. My role is the opposite of a company CEO or a small business owner, even though I am clinically responsible for the care of my patients and the financial impact thereof.

In the business world, CEOs set policy and delegate tasks and responsibilities. They watch the big picture and get into the nitty gritty only if there seems to be a problem or a need for change because of new opportunities.

My role is to literally touch everything that happens to my patients, even if I’m not the doctor ordering a test or responsible for what to do with the result.

This, on paper (for those who still find that analogy relevant), sounds like a good idea: One medical professional maintaining an overview of each patient’s care. Theoretically that would seem to lead to better, more cost effective care.

Each primary care doctor is directly generating perhaps a million dollars in direct practice revenue. (This is only a guess, because I don’t know my own numbers or even an official average.) Then, with the new ways of counting actual cost per patient compared with a theoretical assumed baseline cost, we are more or less held responsible for the financial impact of clinical decisions made by other doctors far beyond our control. So, if we each have 1,500 patients with average annual health spending of $8,000, we could have something to do with $12,000,000 worth of healthcare decisions every year.

But there are two problems with this:

FIRST, doctors see patients all day long and generally have absolutely no time set aside in their schedules to read our own incoming test results or incoming specialist reports, answer questions or even refill prescriptions – all those things are done outside our patient schedules during uncompensated overtime.

What makes these duties even more cumbersome is that our current EMR “workflows” (an odd word for it really) require that absolutely everything that goes into each patient record is electronically signed off by the primary care physician. And given the current level of sophistication of our software, scrolling through a seven page discharge summary or consultation note that may contain medication changes or followup suggestions takes multiples of the time it used to take to do the same thing on paper. In addition, papers were often sorted by support staff and prioritized. In electronic records, the provider is the first and only person who sees anything that comes in. It is then up to us, again in spite of the clumsiness of our software and the lack of time for doing this work, to delegate followup actions to our support staff.

SECOND, doctors know almost nothing about the financial impact of everyday clinical decisions.

We are starting to be held responsible for the total cost of our patients’ care with little or no knowledge of what the real cost is of tests and procedures at the hospitals and specialist offices around us. This is a whole new area for us and I see little progress in spreading this kind of information to primary care providers. If anything, I see this as an emerging area of confusion and resentment between medical administrators and clinicians.

So, even though the world seems to need doctors to maintain a fairly detailed overview of the clinical and financial aspects of our patients’ total healthcare, the world severely underestimates how much time that takes – or should take, if we are going to do it right.

I think it’s high time we have a serious discussion about the best use of a doctor’s time. How many hours per week does it take to manage our patients’ healthcare and how much is that worth? How much time are we wasting right now on perfunctory electronic signatures? To what extent are we allowing workflows that feed the computer but suck the life blood and enthusiasm out of the medical providers who feed it what it wants without getting back from it what they need?

And I don’t like the name Doctor Bottleneck.

I want to be Doctor Real.

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