Practice Management

Hospital medicine groups are getting larger

What are the implications for your workplace?


 

Although readers will be forgiven for missing the subtle change, the tables in the 2020 State of Hospital Medicine (SoHM) Report underwent a landmark structural change that echoes the growth of our field. In the latest SoHM Report, the hospital medicine group (HMG) size categories all increased significantly to reflect the fact that hospitalist groups have grown from a median of 9 physician full time equivalents (FTE) in 2016 to a median of 15.2 employed/contracted FTE (excluding FTE provided by locum tenens providers) in 2020.

Dr. Andrew White

For many years, the Report considered “large” adult HMGs to be those with 30 or more FTE of physicians, and smaller groups were organized by FTE categories of <5, 5-9, 10-19, and 20-29. Now the SoHM Report describes a large HMG as 50 employed/contracted FTE or greater, a category that represents 12.7% of HMGs serving adults. The other categories expanded to <5, 5-14, 15-29, and 30-49, respectively. Overall, HMGs are growing in size, and the SoHM displays new data slices that help leaders to compare their group to modern peers.

There are some caveats to consider. First, these figures only represent physician FTE, and essentially all these large groups employ NP/PA hospitalists as well. Second, these HMGs typically employ some part-time and contracted PRN physicians in this FTE count. In combination, these two factors mean that large HMGs often employ many more than 50 individual clinicians. In fact, the average number of physicians in this cohort was 72.3 before counting NP/PAs and locums. Third, do not interpret the portion of large groups in the survey (12.7%) as insignificant. Because each one employs so many total hospitalists, large HMGs collectively represent a common work environment for many hospitalists in the US. Lastly, although pediatric HMGs have grown, far fewer (3.1%) have over 50 FTE, so this column focuses on HMGs serving adults.

Why does it matter that groups are growing in size? The SoHM Report offers extensive data to answer this question. Here are a couple of highlights but consider buying the report to dig deeper. First, large groups are far more likely to offer variable scheduling. Although the 7-on, 7-off scheduling pattern is still the norm in all group sizes, large HMGs are most likely to offer something flexible that might enhance career sustainability for hospitalists. Second, large groups are the most likely to employ a few hospitalists with extra training, whether that be geriatrics, palliative care, pediatrics, or a medicine subspecialty. Working in a large group means you can ask for curbside consults from a diverse and well-trained bunch of colleagues. Third, large groups were most likely to employ nocturnists, meaning fewer night shifts are allocated to the hospitalists who want to focus on daytime work. From an individual perspective, there is a lot to like about working in a large HMG.

There are some drawbacks to larger groups, of course. Large groups can be less socially cohesive and the costs of managing 70-100 hospitalists typically grow well past the capacity of a single group leader. My personal belief is that these downsides can be solved through economies of scale and skilled management teams. In addition, a large group can afford to dedicate leadership FTE to niche hospitalist needs, such as career development and coaching, which are difficult to fund in small practices. This also provides more opportunities for staff hospitalists to begin taking on some leadership or administrative duties or branch out into related areas such as quality improvement, case management physician advisor roles, or IT expertise.

Ultimately, large groups typically represent the maturation of an HMG within a large hospital – it signifies that the hospital relies on that group to deliver great patient outcomes in every corner of the hospital. Where you practice remains a personal choice, but the emergence of large groups hints at the clout and sophistication hospitalists can build by banding together. Learn more about the full 2020 SoHM Report at hospitalmedicine.org/sohm.

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

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