If you are taking a vacation this summer, have you made arrangements for how emergencies will be handled during your absence? Being available by phone or video 24/7 is probably not the best option for you nor for your clients. Instead, consider making arrangements for a colleague to take emergency calls while you're gone, and provide your colleague's contact info in your phone's voicemail announcement.

Considerations in choosing a colleague for emergency coverage


A good fit

The colleague who covers for your practice should have experience with the types of clients who are likely to call. The professional's degree and licensing need not match yours. For example, if you are a psychologist with many clients who have borderline personality features, and you have two colleagues - a psychologist who works primarily as a business consultant, and a social worker who sees clients who are similar to yours - choose the latter.

Financial arrangements

Aside from actual services provided by your colleague to your clients while you're away, it's common in these types of situations that no money changes hands for the responsibility of being on call per se. Your colleague covers for you now, and you return the favor at another time.

It is not unethical to get paid for covering one another's practice, but there may be legal and/or tax implications (for which you should get appropriate professional consultation if you decide to go this route).

Whatever your arrangement with your colleague, you should have a written agreement, spelling out the terms.

Convenience and cost to the client

Given the convenience of phones and online video platforms, the colleague covering your practice need not be local to you, although they should be licensed in your state. Make sure that they have a protocol (such as asking for emergency phone numbers at the outset) when one of your clients calls them.

Another factor to consider is whether your fee structure differs from that of the colleague who is covering for you. For example, suppose you don't charge for phone calls up to 10 minutes, whereas your colleague charges for every minute of their time. Or, suppose you participate in the client's insurance network, whereas your colleague does not.

Occasionally a client may need a full session during your absence. The colleague covering your practice should not be expected to see people without being paid. How your clients will be billed should be worked out and specified in the written agreement between you and your colleague.

Informed consent

Clients should be informed that the mental health professional covering your practice does not have access to their records. It is advisable to include, in your informed consent document, a clause stating that if they consult your designated on-call professional during your absence, they agree to allow you and the other professional to share information for the purpose of continuity of care.

Also, clients should be informed in advance of any extra charges they may incur when contacting your on-call colleague. For example, in your voicemail greeting and on your website, you might instruct clients that if they have a life-threatening emergency, call 911; otherwise, if it is urgent, call Dr. Substitute, but be advised that the consultation may not be covered by their insurance.

Liability

Obviously, the colleague who is covering for you should have professional liability insurance, and should be willing to show you proof of coverage. You should also check with your malpractice insurer regarding your own liability, in case one of your clients has a bad experience with your colleague while you're gone, and then names you in a lawsuit or licensing board complaint.

Set up your vacation coverage now

The best time to set up coverage for your practice is well before you take time off. Even if your planned vacation is a few months away, it's a good idea to arrange coverage now, not just for your upcoming vacation, but also for unexpected events such accidents or serious illness.