Attributes of Successful Hospitalist Groups


In the first two installments of my own list of attributes that are important underpinnings of successful hospitalist groups, I covered group culture and decision making, recruiting, the importance of a written policy and procedure manual and performance dashboard, and roles for advanced practice clinicians. I’ll continue numbering from last month and complete the list in this column.

7. Clear Reporting Relationships

Most hospitalists are employed by one entity, usually a hospital subcorporation or staffing company, yet in many respects they report to someone else, such as a hospital CMO. For many, this can feel like serving two masters.

As an example, a hospitalist is employed by St. Excellence Medical Group (SEMG), a subsidiary of St. Excellence Hospital. Yet the hospital CMO is the key person establishing hospitalist performance targets, mediating disagreements between hospitalists and cardiologists, etc. So the hospitalists and CMO might jointly make plans for changes in the hospitalist practice that have staffing or budgetary implications only to find that the SEMG president resists spending more on the hospitalist program. For some hospitalist groups, this problem of being stuck between two masters can be a real barrier to getting things done.

Because the employed physician group nearly always directs most of its attention to outpatient care, the hospitalists are sometimes an afterthought, sort of a like a neglected stepchild. And worse, I’ve worked with more than one organization in which the CMO and physician president of the employed physician group are engaged in a power struggle, with the hospitalist group (and other physician specialties) caught in the middle and suffering as a result.

I think the best way out of this dilemma is for the employed physician group to function as a management services organization, providing human resources (payroll, etc.) and revenue cycle functions to the hospitalist groups. But for nearly all other issues, such as policies and procedures, staffing, strategic planning, hiring and firing, etc., the lead hospitalist should report to the CMO.

8. Well-Organized Group Meetings

My experience is that nearly every hospitalist group has periodic meetings to discuss and make decisions on operational and clinical issues. But the effectiveness of the meetings varies a lot. In some cases, they’re little more than disorganized gripe sessions.

I think most groups should have monthly meetings scheduled for about an hour or a little longer. Attendance at most meetings should be the expectation; that means even those not working clinically that day should be expected to attend unless away on vacation or some other meaningful conflict. Simply not being on clinical service that day should not be a reason to miss the meeting. Attendance by phone periodically is usually fine, especially for those who would otherwise have a long drive to attend in person or have child care duties, etc.

An agenda should be circulated in advance of the meeting; minutes, afterward. The best minutes highlight any “to-do” items, including person responsible and target completion date. Tasks occurring over longer than a month should be tracked in the minutes of every meeting until resolved. All past meeting minutes should be readily accessible via a network computer drive for review by any member of the group at any time.

Although some of every meeting will typically need to be devoted to one-way communication from the group leader or others, ideally in every meeting meaningful time should be devoted to joint problem-solving by all in attendance to ensure all are engaged in the meetings and find them useful. Some one-way communication (e.g., regular reports of performance data) typically can be distributed via email and other means rather than devoting meeting time to review it.

9. Effective Compensation

The amount of compensation should be competitive with your market, but because compensation is typically seen as an entitlement, unusually high compensation amounts usually have little impact on performance. But the method of compensation can matter, that is, the portion of total dollars that are fixed, tied to production, or tied to performance.

I think it’s best if the compensation method is generally similar to the way Medicare and other payors reimburse physician services. As payors tie increasing portions of compensation to performance and bundled payments, it makes sense for these changes to be mirrored in hospitalist compensation formulas to the extent that is practical. As I’ve written in February 2014 and many other times, I think there will always be a role for a portion of compensation tied to individual productivity.

According to SHM’s 2014 State of Hospital Medicine report, 64% of hospitalist groups have some component of compensation tied to citizenship activities such as committee participation, grand rounds presentations, community talks, publications, etc. I described a citizenship bonus program in detail in my November 2011 column. And while I was once an advocate of it, I’m now ambivalent. My anecdotal experience with the group I’m part of and many others I’ve worked with makes me suspect that a bonus for good citizenship might just squash intrinsic motivation as described in Daniel Pink’s book Drive.

If you do tie some portion of compensation to citizenship, I strongly encourage not connecting it to basic expectations like meeting attendance or turning in billing data on time. These are standard parts of the job, and citizenship pay should be reserved for going beyond the basics.

10. Good Social Connections

The way things look to me, doctors across all specialties have historically enjoyed robust and rewarding social connections with one another. But with each passing year, the nature of the work, financial pressures, and even clinical vocabulary become more and more different; that is, our Venn diagrams overlap less and less.

I think doctors in different specialties are becoming less connected, and disagreements or new stresses can more easily divide us.

Although all hospitals and medical groups are working hard to implement operational and technical adjustments to keep up with changing clinical practice and reimbursement models, I see very few deliberately focused on maintaining or strengthening the social connections and feeling of occupational solidarity and shared mission across doctors and other providers (see my June 2010 column). Those that do so—to my way of thinking—will be uniquely positioned to weather the storm of rapid change much more effectively. TH

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988. He is co-founder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is co-director for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. Write to him at [email protected].

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