Optimizing RVU Production In An Academic Medicine Practice

The work RVU is the current medium of exchange in clinical practice for all physicians, both private and academic. And as the numbers of physicians employed by academic medical centers swells at the same time as the percentage of these physicians’ time dedicated to clinical practice grows, academic physicians in particular are under increasing pressure to maximize their RVU output. Consequently, many academic physicians find themselves struggling to produce their required numbers of RVUs. Historically, private practices were built around efficient RVU productivity but academic practices were not and consequently, the academic inpatient and outpatient practice environment and practice culture is not conducive to RVU maximization. Failure to meet annual RVU targets can result in loss of bonuses, salary reduction, career disillusionment, and general unhappiness. On the other hand, consistently meeting or exceeding RVU targets can provide job security and the freedom to chart one’s own career path in academic medicine. Here are some of the ways that academic physicians can optimize their RVU production.

In The Inpatient Setting:

  1. Don’t forget to submit your bill for your clinical services. This seems so simple but a few years ago, I did an analysis at our own hospital and found that 7% of inpatient services and procedures that were documented in the electronic medical record went unbilled. This was not because of a conspiracy by the physicians, it was simply because they forgot to enter a charge for a given day’s clinical work. It is easy to forget to submit a bill (often called the “charge capture” application in an electronic medical record). If you are busy trying to save a patient’s life, the lowest priority in your day is to put in a bill for that service. I consider myself pretty compulsive when it comes to billing and even I found times when I forgot to enter a bill for a consult, a return hospital visit, or a bedside procedure. Two strategies can help minimize forgotten charges: (1) work with your electronic medical record to create charge entry prompts when completing progress notes or procedure notes to make entering those charges easier and (2) develop a personal strategy to ensure that all services are billed each day – I print out a rounding list of all of my patients each day and note my E/M service & procedure charge on each patient as I enter charges; at the end of the day, I can take a quick look at the printout to confirm that every patient had a charge entered.
  2. Don’t avoid submitting a bill for your service. A number of years ago, one of our very best clinical educators stopped signing resident inpatient notes and inpatient charges. The excuse was that there just wasn’t enough time in the work day and it got in the way of bedside teaching. No note meant no bill for service. No bill meant no income. No income meant no job.
  3. Don’t under bill. Most large academic medical practices do billing audits by billing compliance personnel. These audits are largely defensive, designed to prevent over billing. This is because large medical practices (and particularly academic practices) are subject to billing audits by Medicare or other insurance companies. The bias from compliance audits is that it is better to err on the side of under billing than over billing. Over billing jeopardizes the organization but under billing jeopardizes the individual physician by making him/her do more work than is necessary to meet annual wRVU targets.
  4. In academic medicine, RVU production is like running a series of sprints but in private practice RVU production is like running a marathon. The academic physician has weeks of being really busy interspersed with weeks of “academic time” with relatively little clinical activity. This is particularly true for internal medicine specialties that provide inpatient care where inpatient service blocks can pack a lot of RVUs into a short period of time. In private practice, RVU productivity is more consistent from one week to the next. Over the course of a year, the total wRVUs by an academic physician will be close to or slightly less than a private practice physician in the same specialty. The academic physician has to prepare for the fact that on the weeks that he/she is on service, he/she is likely going to be generating more wRVUs than a private practice physician but when off service, the wRVUs will drop.
  5. Maintain an adequate consult census size. In order to generate a typical academic internal medicine specialty wRVU target, the physician has to have enough patients on the consult census to generate those wRVUs. The inpatient consult service will have a mixture of new patient consults and return visits and this typically works out to about 1.75 wRVUs per daily encounter. If that physician works every day of the week for 46 weeks a year and does 1 weekend coverage per month, then the physician needs to keep an average daily consult census of about 13 patients. However, if (as is more often the case), that physician has some academic time when he/she is writing papers, teaching classes, preparing lectures, and doing research, then when covering an inpatient consult service, he/she has to have a considerably higher daily consult census in order to generate the proper target of wRVUs to make up for the lack of wRVUs during academic time. So, if the physician wants 5 months of academic time (“release time”) per year, then when on the consult service, that physician needs to maintain a daily census of about 25 patients. There is a limit to how many inpatients a consultant can see per day – there will be times when, by necessity, the consult census gets up to around 35-40. This size of inpatient census cannot be sustained for very long because after a few days of this high of a census, it is too easy to start missing things like key changes in patients’ physical exams, key lab tests, conversion of IV to PO medications, etc.
  6. A consult is a gift. Historically, academic physicians often tried to keep their inpatient census down as low as possible and often tried to dissuade primary services from getting consults. The successful consultant will express gratitude for all consults, regardless of when they come in. So, if you get a 4:00 PM consult, you should not be throwing a tantrum, you should be sending the referring physician a fruit basket at Christmas. Actively avoiding consults results in career death by wRVU deficiency.
  7. There should be no such thing as a curbside consult. The curbside consult is when an admitting physician (or more likely a resident) asks an “off-the-record” clinical question of a consultant. There is no entry into the medical record by the consultant and there is no bill generated. If a consultant’s expert opinion is sought, that consultant should be paid for it. I was once an expert witness in defense of a university medical center. One of the residents had called a pathologist to ask an opinion about an inpatient case and made the mistake of documenting that conversation (and the pathologist’s name) in the medical record. The pathologist was named as a co-defendant in the malpractice suit. Even an off the record opinion can result in legal liability so you should bill for your expertise and opinion.
  8. Don’t sign-off too quickly. For many consulting physicians in academic practice, a major goal of the workday is getting the consult census list shortened as much as possible. Consult follow-up visits are beneficial to patient and the primary service because the consultant’s expertise can be applied to new test results and changes in the patient’s condition. This can reduce inpatient hospital length of stay. Those follow up inpatient encounters do not pay as much as initial consult encounters but they often take very little time and on a per-hour basis can generate more RVUs per hour than initial consults. Most initial inpatient consults require at least 2-3 follow-up visits and many will require daily follow-up visits until the patient is discharged. In academic practice, there is a strong tradition of being a “one and done” when it comes to consults. For a consultant, those follow-up visits take far less time than a follow-up visit by the admitting service (hospitalist, etc.) so you can perform a lot of follow-up visits in an hour. I believe that this is the #1 low-hanging fruit in academic medicine for increased wRVU generation.
  9. Your goal should be to generate an yearly average of > 2.5 work RVUs per hour. For a pulmonologist, such as myself, in order to generate your salary, you should spend 24 minutes or less per work RVU, when averaged over the course of a full year (assuming a 55 hour work week and working 46 weeks a year). In reality, no physician does 55 straight hours a week of purely clinical care, especially in academic practice. Therefore, during the time that you are actually taking care of patients, you need to generate more like 4-5 wRVUs per hour. If it is taking you an hour to place a central line (1.75 wRVUs), then you are losing money.
  10. Mundane tasks generate a lot of wRVUs but can melt your brain. EKGs and pulmonary function tests are commonly performed in large medical centers. On an individual basis, neither generates very many work RVUs. However, they take very little time to interpret and document and consequently, the cardiologist or pulmonologist can generate huge numbers of wRVUs very quickly. The problem is that reading PFTs and EKGs is boring and are often seen as an unpleasant necessity of specialty practice. My brain would melt if the only thing I did all day was read PFTs but by reading them for an hour or two a week, I can generate enough wRVUs to free me up to do the uncompensated things that I really like to do.
  11. You can often generate more RVUs on a weekend than you can on a weekday. Weekdays in the hospital are full of non-clinical stuff: meetings, phone calls, emails, grand rounds, etc. On the weekend, those non-clinical activities largely do not exist, leaving more hours in the workday to see patients on a consult service. For many physicians, the goal for a Saturday or Sunday is to get out of the hospital as early as possible, preferably before noon. As a consequence, there is a different level of care provided on weekends: patients are often not seen as regularly and tests/procedures are often put off until Monday. This is often reflected in the “weekend checkout list” when the doctor covering on the weekday hands off the consult service to the doctor covering on the weekend. I have my own translation of the weekend checkout list.
  12. Make your EMR work for you. Investing a little time developing disease-specific note templates, order sets, and order preference lists can pay enormous long-term benefits by creating time-saving shortcuts in your electronic medical record charting. I have different new consult templates for the inpatient conditions that I most commonly encounter: COPD exacerbations, pneumonia, asthma exacerbations, abnormal chest x-ray, pulmonary embolism, etc. I incorporate my own self-designed “smart lists” into the physical exam portion of my notes that default to the expected findings; for example, for an asthma consult note, the lung exam smart list defaults to “diffuse wheezing” whereas the pulmonary embolism consult lung exam smart list defaults to “normal breath sounds bilaterally”. This allows me to rapidly click through the physical exam and saves me precious keystrokes when creating my consult note. Copying and pasting can also shorten your documentation time but it can be hazardous if you are copying too much data from a previous day’s progress note because of the danger of importing out-of-date information (like vital signs, lab results, NPO status, etc.). By using templates for notes that automatically import new data into the daily note, you can avoid this. I limit my copying/pasting to just my “impression and plan” list so that I can remember what problems I am actively following and what my previous day’s recommendations were – I then edit the impression and plan as appropriate.
  13. Medicare’s gift to pulmonologists is CPT code 94003. As a pulmonologist making inpatient rounds, particularly in a long-term acute care hospital (LTACH), I often see 5-10 patients a day who are on a ventilator and my primary role is ventilator management. CPT code 99003 saves me many minutes of unnecessary documentation keystrokes every day. The advantage of the ventilator management codes is that they require very little documentation – just the current ventilator settings and your plan for any ventilator changes. They are not regular E/M codes but instead are procedure codes; therefore, there is no requirement for a certain number of physical exam points, history elements or complexity of decision-making. Normally, when seeing a new ventilator management patient, for me the decision is between billing an initial day ventilator management code (99002) or a level 2 or 3 new inpatient E/M code. In this situation, it is usually better to bill the E/M code and pay the time cost of the additional documentation. However, for the subsequent visit ventilator management charge, it is generally a decision about whether to bill a level 1 or level 2 subsequent visit E/M or the 94003 ventilator management charge. Because the wRVUs associated with a level 2 subsequent inpatient visit E/M and a subsequent ventilator management code are about the same, you are better off using the ventilator management code and reducing your progress note from one page to one or two sentences.
  14. Organize your rounding strategically. As a pulmonologist, I start off my morning looking at any new x-rays and chest CT scans to see which patients need a bronchoscopy. That way, I can get the bronchoscopy team mobilized early and ensure that the patient is made NPO before the breakfast trays arrive. For a cardiologist, that might be checking to see which chest pain admissions need a stress test or which heart failure admissions need a cardiac echo. For an infectious disease consultant, it may mean checking to see which patients need a new CT scan or MRI to guide therapy. I will pre-chart the outline of my progress note before I see a patient so that I know what new information I need to know about when I am talking to that patient and what problems I am actively following. I then try to complete the inpatient encounter note as soon after I see the patient as possible so that I don’t forget about important data. 
  15. You will get more efficient producing RVUs with age. There is a Starling curve of physician productivity. It takes about 7 years after finishing residency or fellowship to get proficient in getting clinical work done. Not only do physicians continue to learn new knowledge but they get more efficient in getting their daily work done with everything from history taking to progress note writing. For most physicians, productivity peaks in their mid-50’s. After that, they often start dialing back the amount of time they spend in clinical practice.

In The Outpatient Setting:

  1. Pre-chart your patient encounters. Each outpatient encounter will require a certain amount of time in the patient exam room and a certain amount of time outside of the exam room. You can either finish your charting at the end of the day, after the patient leaves or you can do that additional charting before the patient arrives in the clinic. Either way, it will be the same amount of time – either before clinic or after clinic. But by pre-charting and preparing for the patient’s visit, you can often shorten the amount of time spent during actual clinic hours – this can free you up to spend more time communicating with individual patients and allow you to see more patients in a given period of time.
  2. Utilize CPT code 99358. This code is for “prolonged service without patient contact”. It requires documentation that you spent at least 31 minutes doing the service and I primarily use it (1) when reviewing a lot of medical records in advance of a new outpatient consult or (2) after an initial consult when I receive a lot of requested records and radiographic images. In my own practice, most new outpatients come with lots of chest x-ray & CT images that I need to review and interpret, office notes that I need to review, lab results I need to review, and pulmonary function tests that I need to review and interpret. About half of my new patients have > 31 minutes of records to be reviewed and documented. This CPT code is worth 2.10 wRVUs and when combined with a level 5 new outpatient visit (3.17 wRVUs), you can generate a whopping 5.27 wRVUs (7.91 total RVUs) for that visit. I use this code 2-3 times a week. Also, if that new patient does not show up, I still am able to generate some wRVUs for my efforts.
  3. Utilize the other CPT codes that you forgot to bill. The common ones are 99497 (advanced care planning, 30 minutes: 1.50 wRVUs), 99406 (smoking cessation 3-10 minutes: 0.24 wRVUs), 99495 (transition care management, moderate complexity: 2.11 wRVUs), and 99354 (prolonged services > 30 minutes: 2.33 wRVUs). I wrote about these and other often-overlooked CPT codes in a previous post.
  4. Cultivate a referral base. For specialists, new patients can come from self-referrals, emergency department referrals, or physician referrals. Self-referrals and ER referrals are notorious for being no-shows and for having no insurance (or having Medicaid). You are better off filling your schedule with referrals from primary care providers and other specialists because those patients are more likely to show up for their scheduled appointment and generally constitute a better payer mix. The best way to cultivate those referrals is by human contact, either introducing yourself in person or by the occasional phone call. Those referral physicians will remember your name the next time they need a consult if they have shaken your hand or heard your voice. This is especially true for nurse practitioner or physician assistant primary care practices – NPs and PAs don’t have the same opportunities to network with specialists at medical staff meetings, the hospital’s physician lounge, or CME events. A phone call to a primary care NP can endear you to him/her for life. Referral letters are also a good way to cultivate referrals. Each referral letter is an advertisement opportunity for your practice: a poorly constructed letter that consists of 4 pages of electronic medical record documentation will create animosity but a 1-paragraph readable note in prose form will create goodwill.
  5. Make the outpatient EMR work for you. Reducing keystrokes saves you time that you can spend seeing more patients and generating more wRVUs. Just as in the inpatient setting, by creating note templates for common conditions that you use, you can reduce your documentation time; in my pulmonary practice, I have different templates for COPD, interstitial lung disease, asthma, abnormal x-ray, and bronchiectasis office notes. Pre-designed order preferences and smart lists can streamline your practice. Outpatient EMR optimization is a huge topic and I’ll devote a post just to this in the future.
  6. Schedule your patients strategically. I see many academic physicians schedule 20 or 30 minute return visits. By pre-charting those visits, you should be able to cut that return visit time down. I schedule my return visits every 15 minutes. In the long run, this can increase your wRVU output by 33% compared to 20 minute return visits. The increase in net revenue can be even greater because the overhead expense of 4 patients per hour is not very different than 3 patients per hour and that means that after you pay off the base clinic overhead (rent, nurse salaries, etc.), the physician ends up keeping more of the total revenue for his/her own salary.
  7. Convert patient phone calls into wRVUs. There are two ways to do this: get the patient into the office or use the new CPT code for telephone/EMR encounters. CPT code G2012 is for phone or EMR patient encounters that last 5-10 minutes for patients that are not seen for 7 days before or 24 hours after the phone/EMR encounter. It pays 0.25 wRVUs. The other strategy is to get those patients into the office – either at the end of the day or to fill in holes in the office schedule created by late cancelations. Alternatively, keep a open 15 or 30 minutes at the end of the day for add-on sick visits. I prescribe way too much steroids/antibiotics over the phone for COPD exacerbations, etc. that could at least be billed as a G2012.
  8. Be sure that you have the right number of exam rooms. Exam room space in most academic practices is both costly and scarce. Often, a physician will get 2 exam rooms so that the nurses can be rooming one patient while the physician is doing the encounter in the other room. But some specialties need 3 or 4 rooms per physician to create optimal efficiency. Getting the right number of exam rooms to generate the most RVUs without creating too much overhead clinic expense can be challenging and needs to be individualized to each physician based on their specialty, efficiency, extent of point of care testing, etc.
  9. Use the entire day.  I often see physicians start their morning schedule at 9:00 even though the nurses and registration staff all arrive at 7:30. Similarly, I see physicians schedule their last patient at 3:30 or 4:00 even though the staff are paid to be there until 5:30. Time = wRVUs. Be sure to fill the entire day’s clinic time with patients.
  10. Double book strategically. In my practice, there are almost always late cancelations and no-shows. By double booking a couple of slots in expectation of those cancelations and no-shows, you can ensure that the schedule stays full. I often see physicians double book at the beginning of their schedule – I think this is hazardous because if both patients show up, then the physician is behind the schedule for hours, creating exasperation for the physician and dissatisfaction for the patients. I think you are better off double booking a slot in the middle of the morning (or afternoon) and at the end of the day. this is because there are inevitably patients who show up 30 or 45 minutes early for their appointments so if there is a late cancelation, you can slip an early arriver into that slot, thus creating an opening in the middle of the afternoon (or morning) or at the end of the day that the double booked patient can fill.
  11. Make up canceled clinics. There should not be an expectation for making up clinics canceled for vacations and scheduled CME time off. However, in academic practice, there are always things that come up that conflict with the regular clinic times: academic retreats, medical staff meetings, visiting lecturers, new faculty candidate interviews, medical student lectures, etc. These activities fall under “academic time” (release time) and when those conflict with regular clinic time, necessitating canceling that afternoon’s clinic, then a make-up clinic should be scheduled. If your academic time temporarily displaces your usual clinic time then you should have an equal displacement of your usual academic time by make-up clinic time in order to keep your total weekly academic:clinic time ratio constant.
  12. Do point of care testing. For me, this means having an office spirometer (0.17 wRVUs per test). For others, it may mean an INR machine, an EKG machine, or a hemoglobin A1C machine.  In order to determine if you need a piece of equipment to do point of care outpatient testing, you have to do a pro forma that compares the cost of the equipment to the estimated income generated by that piece of equipment. It takes about 44 spirometry tests to pay for the cost of a spirometer, after that, all of the income generated by spirometry is profit.
  13. Partner with advanced practice providers. Everyone wants an NP/PA/LISW/pharmacist in order to make their practice more efficient and generate more wRVUs. But everyone also wants someone else to pay for that NP/PA/LISW/pharmacist. In a healthy clinical environment, the physician should work synergistically with advanced practice providers so that the total RVU productivity is greater than the sum of what that physician & advanced practice provider could generate operating individually. Examples are a physician assistant who does the post-op office visits so that the surgeon can do more surgeries or a nurse practitioner who sees routine follow-up heart failure visits so that the cardiologist can see more new patient consults that in turn lead to more cardiac stress tests and echos.

June 8, 2019