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


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.


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