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Fine print of employment contracts for health professionals

An employment agreement can have long-term consequences for health care professionals. Despite their importance, it is important to read between the lines and understand important terms when negotiating employment contracts for medical professionals.

The first error is concentrating too much on salary without performing research on the potential employer. This includes turnover, the number of physicians who become partner, profit and loss history, malpractice claims, litigation and the reputation of the practice and its partners.

Entering a contract with vague term invites litigation or unpleasant surprises. Medical professionals should seek clear language on cost-of-living raises, its length, whether the agreement is renewable and if both parties must consent to renewal, where the physician must reside and on-call responsibilities. Bonus plans should be reviewed to assure that incentives and requirements are clear and reasonable.

Likewise, contracts often define words differently than their common-understood meaning. Bold-face or italics usually signal that the word or phrase is specifically defined in the agreement. Accordingly, the definition section should be carefully reviewed.

Similarly, employment conditions and job responsibilities should be clear, preferably in a checklist. These should be negated before compensation. Description of duties need to address appointment hours, hospital rounds, emergency room calls, office duties, laboratory results review, phone calls, record documentation, preoperative consultations and the availability of support staff and nurses.

Fringe benefits are important and deserve special attention. These include tuition and continuing education reimbursement, health and malpractice insurance, leave, relocation reimbursement, profit-sharing and retirement plans.

Termination clauses are often ambiguous. Employees should be aware of at-will termination conditions, whether notice is required, just cause for termination, the impact of licensure actions and loss of privileges, breach of contract and the effect of illness or disability.

Non-compete clauses following termination are also becoming more prevalent. These need to clearly set forth their length, the geographic restriction in miles or states and any exceptions such as insurance company work or medical director of a noncompeting entity.

Finally, seeking legal assistance before negotiations can help set forth demands and enter a contract that meets professional and personal needs. Attorneys are prepared to provide important advice and assure that the agreement is fair and reasonable.

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