One. Time flies, but sometimes we have to slow it down. Today would have been March 5, but for a corrective leap year adjustment. This necessity is proof of the slightly imperfect alignment of humans to nature – we meter out our seasons and years with great reliance on lunar and solar cycles, yet our calendars and clocks can’t quite match heavenly reality. Nevertheless, since Robert Hooke’s anchor escape device, human ingenuity has been measuring time with increasing precision. Pocket watches, developed in the 16th century, were the most common personal timekeepers until military trench watches (pocket watches with lugs for a strap) became popular around WWI, proving more practical than a watch in a soldier's pocket. The wristwatch quickly came into fashion. Today cellphones threaten wristwatches for top position in personal timekeeping, although wrists are contesting the matter with physical activity trackers that also monitor time, pulse, and even messaging alerts. Whether by wrist, phone, or clock most people are compelled to track time at home and at work. In the health care environment time measurement has come to sharply impact patient care and residency education due to intense attention on clinical throughput and duty hour regulations. [The pocket watch shown above is a rare Donald Mozart three-wheel mechanism watch made over 150 years ago.]
Two. Time is money, it is often said. If I need furnace repairs this winter, a repairman will reacquaint me with that fact. This is also true for legal services, cabs, baby sitters, or employees in your business. Ultimately, because most of us are employees for someone or some organization, we each have a personal stake in the belief that time equates to money. Healthcare used to be somewhat different, being a professional service in which the service was valued as a parcel of work rather than a unit of time. A doctor’s visit, for example, was charged as the actual “visit” with the time factor accounted for indirectly. New knowledge and technology added complex services to the toolkit of health care and the relative value unit (RVU) joined the language of medicine. Urethral catheterization, for example, takes less time and expertise than radical cystectomy, a fact now accounted for in the charges or RVUs. The physician work RVU for catheterization (CPT 51702) is 0.5 (although after facility expenses and malpractice expenses are factored in the total RVUs grows to 0.87 to 2.0 depending upon whether the work is done in a hospital or an office). For open radical cystectomy with urinary diversion (CPT 51590) the physician’s work RVU will be 36.33 and the total RVU including facility and malpractice expenses will be 55.66. The assignment of an RVU number to robotic cystectomy is under discussion. Radical cystectomy is one of the most technically difficult and risky operative procedures, with significant mortality, morbidity, complex postoperative care, and the highest postoperative readmission rates. In terms of work (preoperative, operative, postoperative, and global exposure) and liability it is easily more than the "equivalent" of 36.33 urethral catheterizations, in my opinion as someone who has performed both procedures. If it is your urethra getting catheterized, of course you want skill, kindness, and attention to the process. Yet, to equate the effort of 36 catheterizations to a single radical cystectomy is like comparing a bicycle ride to flying a Boeing 787 or Airbus A380 full of passengers across the Pacific Ocean. Both take skill and both carry some risk, but the differences are enormous. [Thanks to Malissa Eversole & Irene Gundle]
Just as all procedures are not equal, neither are all clinic visits the same, although less disparity pertains. One new patient visit may be fairly straightforward with discovery of a simple problem defined as ICD-10 code X and perhaps a distinct solution proposed in the form of CPT code Y. If such simplicity had pertained for all my patients and clinics over the years, life would have been easier although less interesting. Some clinic visits are especially challenging, taking deep concentration and probing examinations and conversations that are not always easy. Occasional clinic encounters are excruciating, with unwilling kids, angry parents, painful social circumstances, and no clear solutions. Yet even these complex occasions are gifts of a sort in that they test our mettle and make the other encounters, by contrast, satisfying and sweet.
Most of us understand the need to steward our resources, standardize work as much as possible, and create efficiencies to meet payrolls and manage our mission at large. However, a sharp focus on clinical throughput, with standardized 15-minute encounters and checklists that must be obeyed, runs counter to our values, counter to patient satisfaction, and counter to the excellence we espouse. Still, our eyes stray to clocks on the walls, (although it is a mystery why they are so often wrong) or watches on our wrists, the latter being easier to consult unobtrusively than cell phones and are more accurate than our wall clocks.