Underworked and overpaid


The setting in Alaska was pretty

Near eagles and bear’s there’s a city

With specialists plural

You can’t call it rural.

And it paid really well. What a pity.

Synopsis: I’m a Family Practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa. In 2010 I danced back from the brink of burnout, and honoring a 1 year non-compete clause, travelled and worked in out-of-the-way places in Alaska, Nebraska, Iowa, and New Zealand. After three years working with a Community Health Center, I went back to adventures in temporary positions until they have an Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system I can get along with. A winter in Nome, Alaska, assignments in rural Iowa, a summer with a bike tour in Michigan, and Urgent Care in suburban Pennsylvania stretched into the fall. Last winter I worked western Nebraska and coastal Alaska.  After the birth of our first grandchild, I returned to Nebraska. My wife’s brain tumor put all other plans on hold.  Any identifiable patient information has been included with permission. 

I worked a week in a city in Alaska.

Alaska doesn’t have many cities, but it has more than one.

They put me up in a very nice hotel, walking distance from the workplace.

Medicare pays doctors very poorly in rural areas, so badly that a doctor cannot cover overhead if the practice includes too large a percentage of elderly. So a lot of private practitioners refuse to see new Medicare patients, and some will terminate care on the patient’s 65th birthday.

Massachusetts attacked the problem by making Medicare participation mandatory for licensure. The doctors responded by moving away.

(Canada’s system pays a premium to rural practices, but they still don’t have enough rural doctors.)

So in this particular city one of the larger institutions put together a clinic for the elderly to take the burden off the Emergency Rooms. Salaried physicians see Medicare patients; the clinic depends on grant monies to continue operation.  The model lacks sustainability.

But the docs still need vacations.

I confess I said yes to the job because of ego; I liked the idea that they would fly me to Alaska, and put me up, for a week’s work.  I had hoped to work for a week a month and get in some fishing before my return, and I would have, if paperwork hadn’t moved at a glacial pace and my wife hadn’t come down with a benign brain tumor.

So on a beautiful Monday morning, I got two interviews, a name tag, and a couple of pamphlets by way of orientation, and started to work in a large hospital complex.

My previous experience with their electronic medical record (EMR) system came in handy despite the major differences between versions.

With not much on the schedule, I sat down with the first patient and said, “Tell me about your problem.” I listened without interrupting till the word flow stopped, and said, “Tell me more.”  At the next long pause I asked, “What else?”

With never more than 7 patients on a days’ schedule, I could take a lot of time with each patient. I enjoyed listening to the Alaska pioneer stories.  One 72-year-old male patient gave me permission to write that he had biceps a 16-year-old would envy.

Most of the patients of both genders have hunted, many still hunt, and I enjoyed discussion of moose and caribou weapons.

I could access specialty services, including ER, quickly, but, as easy as it made my job, it didn’t fit with my conception of Alaska as the ultimate in rural experience.

And, for me, rural makes the adventure.

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