Practice Management

Physician Emergencies—Yes, You Have Them, Too

How to take the time you need, ensure continuity of care, and limit risk exposure

A physician covers his face in distress

We all know the old stereotype of the physician God complex, but, seriously, folks—you are not bullet-proof. Doctors are as susceptible to the capricious events of life as any other human.

But your responsibilities as a clinician are unique. “You have to take care of yourself, your staff, and your patients,” says Paul Berkley, FACMPE, administrator and CEO of Healthcare Associates in Medicine, P.C., a multi-physician neurology and orthopaedic practice in Staten Island, NY.

Think about it for a minute: If you were suddenly unable to see patients for an extended length of time, what would happen to your practice?

You can’t prepare for every possibility. But with a few plans in place, you can provide your practice with the basic protections you, your staff, and your patients need.

  1. Get business interruption insurance. This type of insurance can help replace lost income when you can’t see patients for any reason, whether it is a personal health issue or a natural disaster. This financial cushion allows you to continue paying staff and other basic expenses as well as cover additional expenses you may incur providing patient coverage during your absence. Your insurance carrier can also be a good resource for disaster planning checklists and other resources.
     
  2. Read your partnership and employment agreements. We all have them, but how many of us have read them thoroughly? You want to know how leaves of absence and disability are defined and how these circumstances may affect your personal medical benefits. Ask questions and clear up any ambiguities now. You may want to consult your attorney to ensure that you understand all the details of these important documents.
     
  3. Have a plan. Practice staff need to know ahead of time how to respond if you are unable to be in the office for any length of time. Keep an up-to-date list of key contacts like your practice’s attorney, accountant, financial manager, and insurance representative, and make sure your practice staff and a trusted family member have copies. “Identify who will assume responsibility—you can’t do this after the fact,” says Berkley. The office manager is often the best choice for the practice, but you also want to make sure someone in your personal life is informed in case you are unable to communicate.
     
  4. Consider coverage. In the short term, whoever provides your vacation coverage can usually pick up the slack. But if your absence will be longer than a week or two, you’ll need another solution. Depending on the circumstances of the emergency, you may be able to bring in a locum tenens firm or hire a nurse practitioner or other advanced practice provider to help close the gap under your supervision. Make yourself familiar with resources in your area, and add contact information to your disaster planning documentation.
     
  5. Inform patients. The patient communication plan depends entirely on the severity of the emergency and how long you will be out of the office. But it’s also important to consult with your malpractice carrier and review the Medical Practice Act for your state to make sure your plans are in compliance. Whatever the decision, don’t leave staff to answer patient questions on an ad hoc basis—have a prepared statement. “You want everyone saying the same thing and saying it in the right way,” says Berkley. Consider having your attorney and malpractice carrier review the statement before sharing it with staff.
     
  6. Keep staff and colleagues up to date. You may choose to share more information with staff and colleagues than you do with patients, but you still want to do it in a thoughtful, coordinated way. It’s important to convey a calm and reassuring message. “Your staff need to know what the deal is,” says Berkley. “You don’t want to lose them.”

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