Patient contact time vs. admin: Is your contract fair?

Publish date: November 6, 2023

By Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LSW

What’s in a day’s work? For doctors, it’s typically a mix of seeing patients and completing paperwork and follow-up. Often it extends well past the standard workday.

Dennis Hursh, JD, managing partner of Physician Agreements Health Law, a Pennsylvania-based law firm that represents physicians, describes one overwhelmed ob.gyn. who recently consulted him for this problem.

“My client had accepted a position in a group practice where his contract stated he would be working during normal office hours, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. – in other words, a 40-hour workweek,” Mr. Hursh said.

But the distressed physician discovered that actually, he was working almost twice as many hours. “He’d get to work early to do charting, then see patients during the 40 hours, perhaps grabbing a quick sandwich for a few minutes – and then stay after 5 [p.m.] for a few more hours when he’d work on charts or other administrative tasks. Then he’d get something to eat, work on more charts, then go to bed, get up in the morning, and repeat.”

Mr. Hursh summarized the client’s life: “Eating, sleeping, practicing clinical medicine, and doing nonclinical tasks.”

It turned out that the 40-hour workweek included in the contract referred to patient-facing hours, not to all of the ancillary tasks that are part of practicing medicine in this day and age. “Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated story,” said Mr. Hursh.

Be aware of what’s in the contract

“The first draft of many standard physician employment contracts often omits mention of patient contact hour requirements and rather uses vague verbiage such as ‘full-time’ employment or ‘1.0 FTE’ – or full-time equivalent – without defining that term,” said Mr. Hursh. Typically, the 40 hours exclude call coverage, but most physicians understand that and, at least at first glance, it all sounds very reasonable.

But once charting, hours on the phone, arguing with managed care companies, sending in prescriptions, administrative meetings, and other tasks are thrown in, the work hours expand dramatically. Moreover, if your employer doesn’t utilize hospitalists, you may be expected to “round” outside of the 40 hours, which can be particularly burdensome if the employer admits patients to multiple hospitals.

Amanda Hill, JD, owner of Hill Health Law based in Austin, Texas, told this news organization that this predicament isn’t unique to physicians. Exempt employees who don’t clock in and out are often expected to work overtime – that is, to “work as long as it takes to get the job done.” It can affect NPs, PAs, and many others in the health care space. But the number of tasks that fall upon a doctor’s shoulders and the fact that patients’ health and lives are at stake up the ante and make the situation far more difficult for doctors than for employees in other industries.

So it’s important to nail down precise terms in the contract and, if possible, negotiate for a more humane schedule by specifying how the working hours will be used.

“It’s true that a 1.0 FTE definition is too vague,” Ms. Hill said. “I’ve negotiated a lot of contracts where we nail down in writing that the in-office schedule equals 34 hours per week, so the physician is guaranteed an additional 6 hours for administrative time.”

Mr. Hursh usually asks for 32 hours of patient contact per week, which leaves 1 full day per week to catch up on basic administrative tasks. “It’s important for employers to recognize that seeing patients isn’t the only thing a doctor does and there’s a lot of work in addition to face-to-face time,” he said.

But he hasn’t always been successful. One physician client was seeking a workweek consisting of 36 patient contact hours, “which is 90% of the usual FTE of a 40-hour week,” said Mr. Hursh. “But the employer called it ‘part-time,’ as if the doctor were planning to be lying in the sun for the other 4 hours.”

The client decided to accept a 10% pay cut and 10% less vacation to guarantee that she had those extra hours for administrative tasks. “She’s probably working way more than 36 hours a week, but maybe closer to 50 or 60 instead of 70 or more,” he said.

Clarify call coverage

Call coverage is typically not included in the hours a physician is contracted to work on a weekly basis. “Most contracts have call, and it’s usually evenly distributed among parties in a practice, but call can expand if another doctor is out sick, for example,” said Ms. Hill.

Sometimes the language in the contract is vague regarding call coverage. “I ask, how many shifts per year is the doctor is expected to work? Then, I try to negotiate extra pay if more shifts arise,” she said. “The hospital or practice may not demand extra call because they don’t want to pay extra money to the physician.”

On the other hand, some physicians may be eager to take extra call if it means extra income.

Ms. Hill stated that one of her clients was being paid as a “part-time, 2-day-a-week provider” but was asked to be on call and take night and weekend work. When you added it all up, she was putting in almost 30 hours a week.

“This is abusive to a provider that works so hard for patients,” Ms. Hill said. “We have to protect them through the contract language, so they have something hard and fast to point to when their administrator pushes them too hard. Doctors should get value for their time.”

Ms. Hill and her client pushed for more money, and the employer gave in. “All we had to do was to point out how many hours she was actually working. She didn’t mind all the extra call, but she wanted to be compensated.” The doctor’s salary was hiked by $25,000.

Differences in specialties and settings

There are some specialties where it might be easier to have more defined hours, while other specialties are more challenging. Anu Murthy, Esq., an attorney and associate contract review specialist at Contract Diagnostics (a national firm that reviews physician contracts) told this news organization that the work of hospitalists, intensivists, and emergency department physicians, for example, is done in shifts, which tend to be fixed hours.

“They need to get their charting completed so that whoever takes over on the next shift has access to the most recent notes about the patient,” she said. By contrast, surgeons can’t always account for how long a given surgery will take. “It could be as long as 9 hours,” she said. Notes need to be written immediately for the sake of the patient’s postsurgical care.

Dermatologists tend to deal with fewer emergencies, compared with other specialists, and it’s easier for their patients to be slotted into an organized schedule. On the other hand, primary care doctors – internists, family practice physicians, and pediatricians – may be seeing 40-50 patients a day, one every 15 minutes.

Practice setting also makes a difference, said Ms. Murthy. Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals or government-run clinics tend to have more rigidly defined hours, compared with other settings, so if you’re in a VA hospital or government-run clinic, work-life balance tends to be better.

Physicians who work remotely via telehealth also tend to have a better work-life balance, compared with those who see patients in person, Ms. Murthy said. But the difference may be in not having to spend extra time commuting to work or interacting with others in the work environment, since some research has suggested that telehealth physicians may actually spend more time engaged in charting after hours, compared with their in-person counterparts.

Using scribes to maximize your time

Elliott Trotter, MD, is an emergency medicine physician, associate clinical professor of emergency medicine at Texas Christian University Medical Schools, and founder of the ScribeNest, a Texas-based company that trains health care scribes. He told this news organization that there are ways to maximize one’s time during shifts so that much of the charting can be accomplished during working hours.

“About 28 years ago, I realized that the documentation load for physicians was enormous and at that time I developed the Modern Scribe, using premed students for ‘elbow support’ to help with the workload by documenting the ED encounters in real time during the encounter so I wouldn’t have to do so later.”

Over the years, as EHRs have become more ubiquitous and onerous, the role of the scribe has “evolved from a luxury to a necessity,” said Dr. Trotter. The scribes can actually record the encounter directly into the EHR so that the physician doesn’t have to do so later and doesn’t have to look at a computer screen but can look at the patient during the encounter.

“This enhances communication and has been shown to improve patient care,” he said.

Dr. Trotter said he rarely, if ever, needs to do documentation after hours. “But one of my physician colleagues had over 500 charts in his in-basket on a regular basis, which was overwhelming and untenable.”

The use of AI in health care is rapidly growing. Tools to help hasten the process of taking notes through use of AI-generated summaries is something appealing to many doctors. Ms. Hill warned physicians to “be careful not to rely so heavily on AI that you trust it over your own words.” She noted that it can make mistakes, and the liability always remains with the clinician.

Creating time-efficient strategies

Wilfrid Noel Raby, PhD, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Teaneck, N.J., was formerly a psychiatrist in the substance abuse unit at Montefiore Hospital, New York. He told this news organization that he developed a system whereby he rarely had to take work home with him. “I was working only 20 hours a week, but I was usually able to do my charting during those hours, as well as seeing patients,” he said. “I scheduled my appointments and structured a little ‘buffer time’ between them so that I had time to document the first appointment before moving on to the next one.”

There were days when this wasn’t possible because there were too many patients who needed to be seen back-to-back. “So I developed my own template where I could take rapid, very standardized notes that fit into the format of the EHR and met those expectations.” Then, when he had finished seeing patients, he could quickly enter the content of his notes into the EHR. If necessary, he completed his charting on a different day.

Viwek Bisen, DO, assistant professor of psychiatry, Hackensack (N.J.) University Medical Center, is a psychiatrist in the emergency department. “My contract is based on a traditional 40-hour workweek, with 80% of my time allotted to seeing patients and 20% of my time allotted to administration.”

But the way his time actually plays out is that he’s seeing patients during about half of the 32 hours. “The rest of the time, I’m charting, speaking to family members of patients, writing notes, engaging in team meetings, and dealing with insurance companies.” Dr. Bisen has developed his own system of completing his notes while still in the hospital. “I’ve learned to be efficient and manage my time better, so I no longer have to take work home with me.”

“At the end of the day, doctors are people,” Ms. Hill said. “They are not machines. Maybe in residency and fellowship they may grind out impossible shifts with little sleep, but this pace isn’t tenable for an entire career.”

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