Monday, February 20, 2012

Knowledge Workers

Imagine working in an environment that is optimized for physicians. There are no obstacles to providing care for your patients. You receive adequate decision-support. Your work is valued and you are part of the team that gets you immediate support if you encounter problems outside of your expertise.  In the optimized environment you feel that you are working at a level consistent with your training and current capacity. That environment allows you to focus on your diagnosis and treatment of the patient with minimal time needed for documentation and coding and no time wasted responding to insurance companies and pharmacy benefit managers.

As I think about the problems we all encounter in our work environment on a daily basis I had the recent  thought that this is really a management problem.  Most of the management that physicians encounter is strictly focused on their so-called productivity.  That in turn is based on an RVU system that really has no research evidence and is clearly a political instrument used to adjust the global budget for physicians.   Current state-of-the-art management for physicians generally involves a manager telling them that they need to generate more RVUs every year.  Managers will also generally design benefits and salary packages that are competitive in order to reduce physician loss, but this is always in the larger context of increasing RVU productivity.   Internet searches on the subject of physician management generally bring back diverse topics like "problem doctors", “managing physician performance”, "disruptive behavior", “anger management”, and “alcoholism”, but nothing about a management plan that would be mutually beneficial for physicians, their patients and the businesses they work for.

In my research about employee management I encountered the work of the late Peter Drucker in the Harvard Business Review.  Drucker was widely recognized as a management guru with insights into how to manage personnel and information going into the 21st century. One of his key concepts was that of the "knowledge worker".   He discussed the evolution of managing workers from a time where the manager had typically worked all the jobs he was supervising and work output was more typically measured in quantity rather than quality. By contrast knowledge workers will generally know much more about their work than the manager.   Work quality is more characteristic than quantity.   Knowledge workers typically are the major asset of the corporation and attracting and retaining them is a corporate goal.   Physicians are clearly knowledge workers but they are currently being managed like production workers.

The mistakes made in managing physicians in general and psychiatrists in particular are too numerous to outline in this essay. The current payers and companies managing physicians have erected barriers to their physician-knowledge workers rather than optimizing their work environments. The end result has been an environment that actually restricts access to the most highly trained knowledge workers.   It does not take an expert in management to realize that this is not an efficient way to run a knowledge based business.   Would you restrict access to engineers and architects who are working on projects that could be best accomplished by those disciplines?   Would you replace the engineers and architects by general contractors or laborers?   I see this dynamic occurring constantly across clinical settings in Minnesota and it applies to any model that reduces psychiatric care to prescribing a limited formulary of drugs.

I think that there are basically three solutions.   The first is a partial but necessary step and that is telling everyone we know that we have been mismanaged and this is a real source of the so-called shortage of psychiatrists.  The second approach is addressing the issue of RVU based pay directly.   I will address the commonly used 90862 or medication management code.  As far as I can tell people completing this code generally fill out a limited template of information, ask about medication side effects, and record the patient's description of where they are in the longitudinal course of their symptoms and side effects.  Many managed care companies will ONLY reimburse psychiatrists for this stripped down intervention.    I would suggest that adding an AIMS evaluation or screen for metabolic syndrome, an in-depth probe into their current nonpsychiatric medications and how they interact with their current therapy, adding a brief psychotherapeutic intervention, case management discussions with other providers or family, and certainly any new acute medical or psychiatric problems addressed are all à la cart items that need to be assigned RVU status and added to the basic code.   Although there are more, these are just a few areas where psychiatrists add quality care to the prescription of medicines and managed care companies do not.  The final solution looks ahead to the future and the psychiatrist role in the medical home approach to integrated care. We currently have to decide where we fit in that model and make sure that we don't end up getting paid on an RVU basis while we are providing hours of consultation to primary care physicians every day.

Overall these are political problems at the legislative, bureaucratic and business levels.  It should be apparent to anyone in practice that when political pressure succeeds in dumbing down your profession – it necessarily impacts adversely on your work environment, compensation, and most importantly your ability to deliver quality care. 

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