Thriving As An Independent Doctor In Challenging Areas

By Christopher Hughey

We often hear about so-called ‘food deserts,’ areas where it is difficult to impossible to purchase healthy, nutritious foods. But did you know there are also healthcare deserts? These sections of both rural and urban America have a shortage  of doctors and healthcare facilities, and the impacts are deadly. And the effects disproportionately fall on minority communities. For example, on Chicago’s South Side, the death rate from diabetes is twice that of other neighborhoods in the same city. The result, when compounded by other factors such as poverty and poor access to nutrition, is that America has a huge life expectancy disparity, and it’s getting worse, not better. In fact, the gap is now 20 years when comparing the wealthiest zip codes to the poorest.

Fast Layne Solutions is dedicated to fighting this trend by helping doctors in these areas to become more financially viable and to thrive in these environments, even as we also develop plans to help these communities in other ways. Today’s blog is an introduction to how our solutions can help, and next month’s installment will reveal exciting news about how we plan to do so while keeping jobs in the community.

​First of all, why is it so hard for independent doctors to thrive in these communities? Mainly it’s a question of economics. It is extremely expensive to be an independent doctor these days. Quite aside from the fact that new doctors are starting their careers hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, it is also financially burdensome to practice in the current regulatory and competitive environment. 

This month and next, we are going to be looking at the journey of a fictional doctor, Dr. Janelle Smith, a young endocrinologist determined to make a difference in her South Side neighborhood, but who’s struggling to overcome the obstacles facing so many independent doctors, especially in the more economically-challenged areas of America’s cities.

Dr. Smith has just finished medical school and residency and is now ready to dedicate her life to fight diabetes among the area’s poorer residents. Dr. Smith is already in debt from medical school. She owes $200,000 in student loans. But she’s determined to help fight the diabetes epidemic that is cutting so many lives short in her neighborhood. So she raises some money and opens her clinic. She plans to stay viable by serving a wide range of patients: those who have private insurance, a few who are self-pay, some Medicare, and a very large portion of Medicaid patients. She also hopes to do a free clinic session every Saturday for four hours. She hires a biller, a receptionist, an office manager, and a physician’s assistant. 

Once she is up and running, she quickly builds a large patient base. Yet she’s not thriving, and her cash flow is terrible, with her average accounts receivable days at around 75. Reimbursements are slow, expenses are high. Her biller spends all day fighting the insurance companies over rejected claims. She’s paying over 3% on credit card transactions for co-pays and self-pays. Her staff seems to spend endless hours on mundane, unproductive tasks like setting up appointments and doing reminders by phone, calling insurance companies for verifications, reworking the hundreds of claims that get kicked back from insurance for seemingly pointless reasons, dealing with write-offs over unexpected denials, going through mountains of paperwork for patient forms that the receptionist must then manually enter……the list is endless. And Dr. Smith herself has no life. If she isn’t seeing patients, she’s catching up on charting in her tortuously cumbersome EHR (that she can barely afford). And it’s not like she has a choice: as a doctor taking Medicare, she has to start reporting her MIPS performance by her second year, and her state Medicaid program also has reporting requirements. She MUST use an EHR.

Dr. Smith is getting by, but she’s frustrated. She thinks of the stereotypes she grew up with: rich doctors driving Mercedes, taking off Wednesday afternoons, living in mansions. Not that she became a doctor for those reasons: if she had, she could have taken a cushy job with one of the large hospital systems. But still, it would be nice not to feel that her practice and her own financial situation was a month-to-month crisis waiting to happen. 

One evening, after yet another 14 hour day, she gets a phone call. It’s a recruiter from the large hospital system in town. He’s familiar with her work, knows her impressive education and residency history. He throws out a number. A number that would mean no more stressing out about student loan payments. No more worrying about making payroll next month. 

And no more independence. And no more serving the community she grew up in. In fact, no more living or practicing in her old neighborhood at all. To avoid an excessive commute, she’d have to move to the north side of town. And it means working as an employee for a corporate provider. No more being her own boss. No more serving the South Side.

Is this really what it comes down to? A choice between doing what’s right and barely scraping by on the one hand versus giving up her independence and her dream of serving the community where she grew up on the other?

​Absolutely not. She’s facing a false choice, because, like so many doctors in America, she simply does not know that there are solutions to all her problems. Tune in next week and we’ll see how Dr. Smith can turn her practice around and live her dream of serving the South Side as a thriving, independent doctor.

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