Sunday, March 11, 2012

Mismanagement of Knowledge Workers

In a previous post,  I discussed Drucker's concept of “knowledge workers” and how that concept applied to psychiatrists and physicians. The basic concept is that knowledge workers know more than their managers about the service they provide, work quality is more characteristic than quantity, and they are generally considered to be an asset of corporations.  I pointed out that physician knowledge workers are currently being managed like production workers and referred to common mistakes made in managing physicians and psychiatrists. Today I will tell attempt to describe how some of that mismanagement occurs using examples that psychiatrists have discussed with me over the past several years.

Inpatient psychiatry has taken a severe hit over the past 20 years in terms of the quality of care. Many people have talked with me about the discharge of symptomatic patients occurring in the context of high volume and low quality. Depending on the organization, a psychiatrist may be expected to run an outpatient clinic in addition to a busy inpatient service or in some cases provide all the medical services to the inpatients with minimal outside consultation. Most hospital care is reimbursed poorly despite political suggestions to the contrary. Psychiatric DRGs are typically 20% less than medical surgical DRGs and they are not adjusted for complex care. Administrators generally "manage" psychiatrists in a way to make sure that inpatient beds are covered. That frequently means that psychiatrists who prefer practicing in an outpatient setting end up doing some inpatient care. An outpatient clinic may be canceled so that a psychiatrist is available to run an inpatient unit. There have been situations where inpatient beds or whole units have been shut down for lack of psychiatric coverage. The only explanation given is that there is a "shortage" of psychiatrists.

I had the pleasure of running into one of my residency mentors in an airport last May. I let him know that I was just finishing up 21 years of inpatient work and moving on to something else. He smiled and said: "Three months wasn't enough?".  I always liked his sense of humor but there is also a lot of reality in his remarks.

I don't mean to imply that it is any easier on the outpatient side. If you are a manager, what could be easier than having a unit of production that you could hold your employees to? It turns out there is something easier and that is being able to set the value of that unit of production. That is what RVU based productivity is all about. A standard managerial strategy these days is to have a meeting with an outpatient psychiatrist and show them how much they are "costing the clinic" based on their RVU production. Spending hours a day answering phone calls, doing prior authorizations, questions from other clinicians, curbside consultations, discussions with family members, and documenting everything doesn't count. I have had the experience calling a clinic at 7 PM and hearing keyboards clicking in the background. I have asked outpatient colleagues how they are able to produce outpatient documentation themselves and still get out of clinic on time. Now that I work in an outpatient setting myself, I know what they were telling me was accurate and that is the documentation gets deferred until later.

The mismanagement does not stop there. At some point in time medical schools decided that there were also going to start basing faculty salaries on clinical production. I suppose every medical school as a formula for converting teaching and research time into production units, but until I see those formulas my speculation is that any activity that does not result in billing leads to lower compensation. The days when physicians were hired as teachers and academicians seem to be gone.  Because of discriminatory reimbursement, departments of psychiatry will be disproportionately affected.

Within psychiatry there used to be an interest in organizational dynamics and how they impacted patient care. The dynamics in most organizations today are set up to promote the business. That has produced a focus on high volume-low quality or in some cases supporting the specialty with the highest reimbursement and procedure rates.   Associated dynamics are in place to select and shape an idealized corporate employee who will modify his or her practice according to the whims of the Corporation. It may be hard to believe but large medical corporations everywhere are trying to figure out how to recruit young physicians who believe in their models. Physicians who don't accept these ideas frequently find that the company is not very friendly to them. There are always various political mechanisms for ousting any dissidents and there is minimal tolerance for debate.  The dissent can be as mild as asking why consultants with less expertise than the physicians in the practice are being called in to critique them and come up with a plan.

When it comes to physician mismanagement there are few businesses that can equal the government. RVUs, the Medicare Physician Payment Schedule, pay for performance, and various failed political theories like fraud as the cause for healthcare inflation, and managed care amplifying all of the above and focusing all of that irrational management directly on physicians.  The result is obvious as enormous inefficiencies, job dissatisfaction, and demoralization. Governments partnering with businesses and placing business practices like utilization review and prior authorization in state statutes increases the burden exponentially. At the heart of this conflict is a physicians training to be a scientific critical thinker and function autonomously with the businesses interest of making a buck. Despite all the lip service to quality, business decisions are always made on a cost rather than quality basis.

It is often difficult to see any light through the blizzard of government and business propaganda that passes for the management of physicians and psychiatrists. Psychiatry has bore the brunt of mismanagement over the past 20 years and that has well been well documented in the Hay group study showing the disproportionate impact of managed care on our field. Inpatient bed capacity has dwindled and the beds that have not been shut down are managed for high-volume low quality work. Outpatient clinics including those run by and nonprofits are managed according to the same model.  Businesses and governments have provided the incentives for this type of practice.  The available consultants in the field only know an RVU based productivity model and nothing else. Rather than treating psychiatrists as knowledge worker assets, the available jobs frequently reduce us to micromanaged clerical workers utilizing about 10% of our knowledge.  It should be no surprise that the environment makes it seem like anyone can do the job.

One of my favorite quotes from Peter Drucker was: "More and more people in the workforce and mostly knowledge workers will have to manage themselves".   After all, only  the knowledge worker knows how to best complete the job.  Every psychiatrist that I know, knows how to get the job done and it is often at odds with what we are allowed to do. The best pathway to do this is to optimize the internal states of the knowledge workers and create environment where they manage themselves.  There are very few environments available where that can happen today for psychiatrists.

George Dawson, MD