Practice Management

Dealing with staffing shortfalls

Five options for covering unfilled positions


Being in stressful situations is part of being a hospitalist. During a hospitalist’s work shift, one of the key determinants of stress is adequate staffing. With use of survey data from 569 hospital medicine groups (HMGs) across the nation, one of the topics examined in the 2018 State of Hospital Medicine Report is how HMGs cope with unfilled hospitalist physician positions.

Allina Health Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis

Dr. Tierza Stephan

The survey presented five options for covering unfilled hospitalist physician positions: use of locum tenens, use of moonlighters, use of voluntary extra shifts by the HMG’s existing hospitalists, use of required extra shifts, and leaving some shifts uncovered. Recipients were instructed to select all options that applied, so totals exceeded 100%. The data is organized according to HMGs that serve adults only, children only, and both adults and children.

For all three types of HMGs, the most common tactic to fill coverage gaps is through voluntary extra shifts by existing clinicians, reportedly used by 70.3% of HMGs that cover adults only, 66.7% by those that cover children only, and 76.9% by those that cover both adults and children. Data for adults-only HMGs was further broken down by geographic region, academic status, teaching status, group size, and employment model. Among adults-only HMGs, there is a direct correlation between group size and having members voluntarily work extra shifts, with 91.1% of groups with 30 or more full-time equivalent positions employing this tactic.

For HMGs that cover adults only and those that cover children only, the second most common tactic is to use moonlighters (57.4% and 53.3% respectively), while use of moonlighters is the third most commonly employed surveyed tactic for HMGs that cover both adults and children (53.8%).

HMGs that serve both adults and children were much more likely to utilize locum tenens to cover unfilled positions (69.2%) than were groups that serve adults only (44.0%) or children only (26.7%). The variability in the use of locum tenens is likely because of the willingness and/or ability of the respective groups to afford this option because it is generally the most expensive option of those surveyed.

Requiring that members of the group work extra shifts is the least popular staffing method among adults-only HMGs (10.0%) and HMGs serving both children and adults (7.7%). This strategy is unpopular, especially when there is little advance warning. Surprisingly, 40.0% of HMGs that see children only require members to work extra shifts to cover unfilled slots. This could be because pediatric HMGs are often smaller, and it would be more difficult to absorb the work if the shift is left uncovered. In fact, many pediatric HMGs staff with only one clinician at a time, so there may be no option besides requiring someone else in the group to come in and work.Of the options surveyed, perhaps the most uncomfortable for those hospitalist physicians on duty is to leave some shifts uncovered. The rapid growth and development of the specialty of hospital medicine has made it difficult for HMGs to continuously hire qualified hospitalists fast enough to meet demand. The survey found 46.2% of HMGs that serve both adults and children and 31.4% of groups that serve adults only have employed the staffing model of going short-staffed for at least some shifts. HMGs serving children-only are much less likely to go short-staffed (20.0%).

I work with a large HMG that has more than 70 members, and when it has been short-staffed, it tries to ensure a full complement of evening and night staff as the top priority because these shifts are typically more stressful. Since we have more hospitalist capacity during the day to absorb the loss of a physician, we pull staff from their daytime rounding schedules to execute this strategy. While going short-staffed is not ideal, this option has worked for many groups out of sheer necessity.

Dr. Stephan is a hospitalist at Allina Health’s Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis and is a member of the SHM Practice Analysis Committee.

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