Viewpoint: A doctor learns about embezzlement the hard way

January 9, 2009

Patient care can be a wonderful thing, but it's not the only thing.

Key Points

Someone once said that the only things you can truly call your own are your mistakes. Lately, I have been feeling pretty wealthy. A friend in the investment banking industry confided that, behind their backs, bankers characterize doctors as being so busy professionally that they don't take the time to understand financial matters adequately, often jumping into fiscally unsound ventures. They call these "dumb doctor deals."

I'm a 45-year-old specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation. After sharing a practice with another physician for a year, I opened my own practice and began seeing patients on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I hired an employee from my prior partner with his blessing.

I pointed out that one of the benefits of the job was the flexibility to work at home on Tuesdays and Thursdays when necessary. As a single mother, she appreciated the fact that her every move wasn't dictated by a time card. There was no need to worry when colleagues told me she was not coming to work on Tuesdays and Thursdays at any regular time, because Janna was simply working from home as agreed.

My financial consultant assured me that everything was going well and that Janna was doing an excellent job of managing my QuickBooks. But by the beginning of my third year, I began to worry. Our bottom line was not improving, and I was having difficulty making my monthly student-loan payments. I discovered that my billing company was not performing very well, and so I switched to another one.

My father had been willing to infuse cash into the practice during low times, and he was the first to speak up about its financial instability. He has always been wonderfully supportive, but he voiced concern about whether I knew what was happening with the books. I assured him that both Janna and my financial adviser were managing the QuickBooks accounts appropriately. The truth is I had no idea.

My father and I finally held a meeting with my adviser, the billing company, and Janna to help determine what the problems could be. The billing company assured me that the number of patients we were seeing had increased during the prior year. Our income, however, had dropped. Though the numbers themselves offered no clear answers, we set out on an all-encompassing search to determine what was going on.

A few months after the meeting, Janna tendered her resignation, tearfully telling me that she had received a job offer she couldn't refuse. It was just down the street from her home and would allow her more time with her children. I was sad to see her go, but by this time, my father and I were starting to suspect there was more to Janna's story than she was revealing.

Several months later, I received a credit card statement for an account I had closed-or thought I had closed-more than two years earlier. The card was maxed out, and the balance was swelling from a 25 percent interest rate. There had been recent activity-bills for restaurants, tanning sessions, car tinting, and a nail salon. I immediately put a hold on the account. I called Janna and explained the situation. After a moment of silence, she said, "I've been using the card."

In an instant, I realized a great deal. My unwavering trust in my sole employee had been blind indeed. I had read countless times about victims of office embezzling, but that was always in large medical groups. I was in solo practice, so I figured I was exempt from the formal office policies and procedures needed to prevent such catastrophes.