Practice Economics

The State of Hospital Medicine Is Strong


Editor's Note: Listen to Dr. Smith share more of his views on the State of Hospital Medicine report.

2016 is the “Year of the Hospitalist,” a sobriquet meant as a proud nod to the specialty’s maturation as a fixture in hospitals across the country. Hospital medicine is no longer the new kid on the block as it has assumed care for the vast majority of hospitalized patients nationwide.

One could understand then if the ever-rising salaries hospitalists have commanded for 20 years might have finally plateaued, particularly as tightening budgets have C-suite administrators looking to trim costs.

Think again.

Median compensation for adult hospitalists rose 10% to $278,746 from 2013 to 2015, according to data from the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA). The compensation data from MGMA are wrapped into the 2016 State of Hospital Medicine Report (SoHM), which published this month. That double-digit increase continues the steady climb of hospitalist pay, which is up 30% since 2010.

“Growth suggests that there is still a huge demand,” says Leslie Flores, MHA, a partner in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants and a member of SHM’s Practice Analysis Committee. “The demand for hospitalists still exceeds the supply, and so recruiting hospitalists, particularly to nonurban areas, is really challenging and is requiring more money.”

The SoHM is a biennial partnership between SHM and MGMA that provides HM group leaders and rank-and-file hospitalists a litany of benchmarks for salaries, workloads, and everything that informs those two topics. Call it the specialty’s empirical roadmap.

“Often, compensation information relative to staffing information is proprietary, so hospitalists are in a position where they are dependent upon their hospital stakeholders to have access to this information, but they are also the same stakeholders with whom they negotiate their contracts,” says G. Randy Smith, MD, MS, FRCP(Edin), SFHM, an assistant professor in the Division of Hospital Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and a member of SHM’s Practice Analysis Committee. “The State of Hospital Medicine report by SHM provides an opportunity for hospitalists to have an independent view of the compensation and workforce distribution factors that can impact negotiations with their hospital stakeholders. It’s a very powerful tool.”

Compensation Data

Rachel Lovins, MD, SFHM, CPE, voraciously reads every SoHM report because she uses its keynote compensation data to benchmark what she should pay her staff.

“I make a promise to my group,” says Dr. Lovins, chief of hospital medicine and vice chair of the Department of Medicine at Middlesex Hospital in Middletown, Conn. “I promise them that we will always be at or above what is standard for our areas. So for me, I have to look every time.”

Promises like that are getting more expensive to keep.

Hospitalists in the East region earn a median compensation of $245,977, up 3.1% from the $238,676 figure reported in 2014. But the East, where the bulk of the country’s population lives and where competition for hospitalists is typically lessened, is by far the lowest-paid region.

Hospitalists in the South continue to earn the most, with a median compensation of $301,833, up a whopping 16.9% from $258,020 from 2013. Hospitalists in the West earned a median of $275,658 (up 10.3% from $249,894), while Midwestern hospitalists saw a median compensation of $285,213 (up 8.9% from $261,868).

In addition to year-over-year growth, HM is also seeing outsized growth as compared with family medicine physicians, according to MGMA data. From 2011 to 2015, family medicine hospitalists saw an average compensation increase of 4.7%, bringing the average salary to $285,213. During the same period, family medicine physicians who are not hospitalists and don’t practice obstetrics saw an average annual compensation increase of only 3%, bringing the average salary to $230,456.

“The hospitalist can save the hospital considerable amounts of money because of their ability to better manage the patient and improve the quality of care at the same time,” says David Gans, MSHA, FACMPE, MGMA’s senior fellow of industry affairs. “Hospitals, they have recognized that, and therefore, there is considerable competition for recruiting and retaining hospitalists.”

To that end, 96.3% of HM groups (HMGs) received financial support in addition to their professional fee revenue. That’s up from 89% of HMGs that relied last year on their host hospitals. The median support is $157,535 per full-time employee (FTE), up just 1%. Correspondingly, SoHM reported 8.5% of HMGs received enough income from professional fee revenue to cover expenses, up from 6% two years ago.

Industry watchers predicted that, in two years, fee revenue would have to rise to offset hospitals’ inability to pay. The early returns seem to show that bearing out.

“We’re pretty close to that breaking point,” Flores says. “When we go around the country and do consulting work, we are hearing many more hospital leaders telling us, ‘We’re concerned about how much money this program is costing us, and we are getting to the point where we can’t afford it.’”

Productivity Stalls

While compensation continues to climb, productivity flattened out in this year’s report.

Median relative value units (RVUs) dipped slightly from the figure reported in 2014, to 4,252 from 4,297. But the tally is still ahead of 2012’s total of 4,159. Median collection-to-work RVUs also ticked down from 2014’s tally, to $50.29 from $51.50 in 2013.

Flores largely attributes the falling metrics of productivity to the evolution of HMGs that have standardized their scheduling to the point that most HMGs now offer vacation time.

“So the number of groups that are working 182 days is fewer, and we see a lot more groups that are working something like 168 days or 172 days,” she says. “And if a hospitalist works fewer shifts, even if they see the same number of patients per shift, they’re going to generate less productivity over the course of the year, so that’s part of it.”

Andrew White, MD, SFHM, director of the HM service at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, says the report’s value is in avoiding a myopic approach to how HMGs operate. For example, RVUs are an important metric of productivity, but not all shifts should be expected to produce the same.

For example, it’d be valuable to use the report to see how hard your nocturnists are working compared with other sites, says Dr. White, also a member of the Practice Analysis Committee.

“The fundamental issue with working at night is that not everybody wants to do it, and so you have to recognize that it’s a pain to do and you have to either pay those people more, have them work less, or acknowledge that they’re going to be less productive,” he says. “We use the survey to assess all three of those things and then can work with our nocturnists to reach an agreement about a fair approach to their job structure that’s actually informed by national benchmarks. That process has helped us to pick, for example, how many nights per year they should work or what their salaries should look like compared to the day hospitalists.”

Dr. White says that because the report is comprehensive and includes broad participation, he’s able to use it as a benchmark to make hiring and service structure decisions.

“It also helps me to keep abreast of some trends that may be occurring in the broader workplace that we aren’t participating in but maybe should be or should be thinking about,” he says.

The report’s subsections are also critical for comparing one HMG to others, Dr. White says.

“Obviously, there is the aggregate data there to look at the average program,” he says. “But really as a hospitalist group leader, you want to know what are other programs like mine doing, and it allows you to drill down into that data.”

Survey Limitations

Any hospitalist worth their weight in scrubs knows that any medical study is only as good as its limitations. And while SoHM is a trove of valuable data information, Flores always cautions against taking data points as gospel.

“People should understand what the numbers are telling us, what goes into those numbers, and take them not with a grain of salt but take them for what they are,” she says.

For example, Flores says, look at productivity metrics per shift. Day shifts have traditionally driven that figure, and those shifts are typically busy. But night shifts have fewer patients and less productivity.

“So as more and more hospitals get 24-hour in-house coverage and have doctors working low-productivity night shifts, that [productivity] number might fall,” she says.

That sort of nuanced analysis of productivity can’t be found anywhere else, says Dr. Lovins.

These are “data that we don’t normally get from our administration,” she says, “information on things like staffing and patient loads, and how much more the director makes than the people that work for the director, and how much more nighttime people make than daytime people make. There is no other way for me to get that information, and it’s very important to make sure that our program is fair.”

Aside from fair, the data points are essential talking points as HMGs negotiate contracts and other arrangements with their administrators.

“It’s a reference point so that everybody feels like we’re using data from a national source that everyone can agree upon as fair,” says Dr. White.

In Dr. White’s case, he doesn’t have many local academic programs to benchmark against. And comparing to private, for-profit hospitals isn’t the proverbial apples-to-apples comparison. Having vetted regional and national figures for comparison is incredibly valuable, particularly since he doesn’t have to compile the data.

“If I had to go call all those group leaders and figure out what they were doing, it would be pretty exhausting,” he says.

Alternative Payment Models

Dr. Smith says that one area where the report will become even more valuable over the next few years is addressing alternative payment models (APMs). In particular, HM leaders say they’re excited about being drivers in one of the largest APMs: the Bundled Payments for Care Improvement (BCPI) initiative. In short, the program covers 48 defined episodes of care, including medical and surgical, that could begin three days prior to admission and stretch 30, 60, or 90 days post-discharge.

Dr. Smith thinks it’s still a bit too early to see from the report how APMs have affected compensation.

“We’re still relatively in the early days of bundled-payment models, so in that regard, the State of Hospital Medicine Report still represents very much a starting point with regard to where hospital medicine groups will find themselves as they start to encounter challenges,” he says.

Perhaps more important, Gans doesn’t expect that the maturation of APMs will result in decreased compensation for hospitalists.

“In a hospital environment where the hospital is being reimbursed a set amount for a complete hospital admission and follow-up care and potential readmissions, that is an episodic payment already,” he says. “Consequently, the incentive is there today to better manage the patient and to attain the care coordination and care management necessary for that patient to be discharged and not readmitted.”

In fact, the SHM/MGMA data tell him that the basic economic theory of supply and demand continues to drive hospitalist compensation even 20 years after the field was given its name. He says rising compensation, even as more practices look to hire nurse practitioners or physician assistants as less expensive alternatives, shows no sign of letting up.

“I think demand will continue to be there,” Gans adds. “There may be in the long run some lessening of demand for hospitalists, but I don’t see that for years.”

Richard Quinn is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

Is Burnout a Problem?

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Burnout has become a major concern across the healthcare spectrum, particularly in cognitive fields such as hospital medicine where physicians can work long days or weeks with little sleep and a lot of pressure.

But despite hospitalists branching into multiple new arenas over the past decade (surgical co-management and informatics, to name a few), burnout has never registered as a significant problem in SHM’s reports. In fact, the 2016 State of Hospital Medicine Report finds that the median turnover rate for physicians “only continues to decline year after year.”

The biennial report found a turnover rate of 6.9% for responding physicians who serve adults only. That’s down from 8% in 2014 and 14% in 2010.

Turnover rate, however, may not be the best measure of burnout levels, one hospitalist admits.

“It could be tempting to think that a decrease in turnover rates would equal to decreased burnout—it might also be that individuals could get so burnt out everywhere that they no longer see that leaving one hospital medicine group for another is a viable cure,” says G. Randy Smith, MD, MS, FRCP(Edin), SFHM, an assistant professor in the Division of Hospital Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and a member of SHM’s Practice Analysis Committee.

Dr. Smith says SHM is actively trying to address burnout outside of the SoHM but that additional questions added to the report in future years could help home in on the phenomenon.

“There are other ways that burnout can manifest,” he adds. “There is concern that it can manifest in decreased patient satisfaction, in more sick leave, diagnostic error, and decreased ability to teach effectively in academic institutions. … Burnout can still very much remain an issue for a hospitalist group even if they see that their turnover rates are level relative to a regional or national average.”

Richard Quinn

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