Practice Management

How do hospital medicine groups deal with staffing shortages?

Persistent demand for hospitalists nationally


During the last two decades, the United States health care labor market had an almost insatiable appetite for hospitalists, driving the specialty from nothing to over 50,000 members. Evidence of persistent demand for hospitalists abounds in the freshly released 2018 State of Hospital Medicine (SoHM) report: rising salaries, growing responsibility for the overall hospital census, and a diversifying scope of services.

Dr. Andrew White, University of Washington, Seattle

Dr. Andrew White

The SoHM offers fascinating and detailed insights into these trends, as well as hundreds of other aspects of the field’s growth. Unfortunately, this expanding and dynamic labor market has a challenging side for hospitals, management companies, and hospitalist group leaders – we are constantly recruiting and dealing with open positions!

As a multisite leader at an academic health system, I’m looking toward the next season of recruitment with excitement. In the fall and winter we’re fortunate to receive applications from the best and brightest graduating residents and hospitalists. I realize this is a blessing, particularly compared with programs in rural areas that may not hear from many applicants. However, even when we succeed at filling the openings, there is an inevitable trickle of talent out of our clinical labor pool during the spring and summer. One person is invited to spend 20% of their time leading a teaching program, another secures a highly coveted grant, and yet another has to move because their spouse is relocated. By then, we don’t have a packed roster of applicants and have to solve the challenge in other ways. What does the typical hospital medicine program do when faced with this circumstance?

The 2018 SoHM survey first asked program leaders whether they had open and unfilled physician positions during the last year because of turnover, growth, or other factors. On average, 66% of groups serving adults and 48% of groups serving children said “yes.” For the job seekers out there, take note of some important regional differences: The regions with the highest percentage of programs dealing with unfilled positions were the East and West Coasts at 79% and 73%, respectively.

Next, the survey asked respondents to describe the percentage of total approved physician staffing that was open or unfilled during the year. On average, 12% of positions went unfilled, with important variation between different types of employers. For a typical HM group with 15 full-time equivalents, that means constantly working short two physicians!

2018 SoHM: Unfilled and open positions lead to extra work

Not only is it hard for group leaders to manage chronic understaffing, it definitely takes a toll on the group. We asked leaders to describe all of the ways their groups address coverage of the open positions. The most common tactics were for existing hospitalists to perform voluntary extra shifts (70%) and the use of moonlighters (57%). Also important were the use of locum tenens physicians (44%) and just leaving some shifts uncovered (31%).

The last option might work in a large group, where everyone can pick up an extra couple of patients, but it nonetheless degrades continuity and care progression. In a small group, leaving shifts uncovered sounds like a recipe for burnout and unsafe care – hopefully subsequent surveys will find that we can avoid that approach! Obviously, the solutions must be tailored to the group, their resources, and the alternative sources of labor available in that locality.

The SoHM report provides insight into how this is commonly handled by different employers and in different regions – we encourage anyone who is interested to purchase the report ( to dig deeper. For better or worse, the issue of unfilled positions looks likely to persist for the intermediate future. The exciting rise of hospital medicine against the backdrop of an aging population means job security, rising income, and opportunities for many to live where they choose. Until the job market saturates, though, we’ll all find ourselves looking at email inboxes with a request or two to pick up an extra shift!

Dr. White is associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the chair of SHM’s Practice Analysis Committee.


Society of Hospital Medicine. 2018 State of Hospital Medicine Report. pp. 89, 90, 181, 152.

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