The workload of individual hospitalists has long been a hot-button issue. In a 2013 survey of hospitalists, 40% felt workloads were unsafe on a monthly basis, and 22% reported ordering unnecessary testing or procedures because of time pressure.1 In a 2014 analysis of over 20,000 admissions to an academic hospital medicine service, increasing workload led to increased length of stay and cost per case.2 Although these studies suggest a “sweet spot” for hospitalist workload, many groups face constant pressure to increase revenue.
Over the past decade there has been a significant change in how hospital medicine programs are financed. In the 2010 State of Hospital Medicine (SoHM), the median financial support per physician hospitalist in adult hospital medicine groups (HMGs) was $98,253. By the 2020 SoHM, the financial support was $198,750, an increase of $100,497 in just 10 years. When this is combined with the explosive growth in the number of hospitalists, there is one inescapable conclusion – hospital medicine is expensive.
Over this same 10 years, net collections per hospitalist grew from $194,440 in 2010 to $216,779 in 2020, an increase of $22,339. The increase was caused by higher collections per encounter, not more encounters. Additionally, median compensation for adult/internal medicine hospitalists increased over the same period from $215,000 to $307,336, an increase of $92,336, or 43%. That is an increase of 3.7% per year, more than twice the rate of inflation or wage growth in the general economy over the same period. About 75% of this increase was funded by hospital support. It is clear – health care systems continue to find value in investing in hospitalists and hospital medicine programs.
With mounting costs for hospitals, there is pressure for the hospitalist model of care to change or for yearly billable encounters per hospitalist full-time equivalent to increase. Yet, the productivity of hospitalists, as measured by median billable encounters per year has remained flat. The 2010 SoHM listed median number of billable encounters per year for an internal medicine hospitalist as 2,230. In 2020, the number is 2,246 – a trivial 0.7% increase per decade, what amounts to a rounding error. There has been wiggle up and down over the years, but I suspect these are not trends but noise.
So the question is why. I think it is partly because hospital medicine leaders together with the leaders of their health care systems seem to be reaching an equilibrium. Productivity will always remain an expectation. This expectation will vary based on local circumstances. But for many HMGs, the days when productivity is pushed as the primary objective seem to be disappearing. Most hospital leaders seem to now understand that high productivity can be detrimental to other program goals.
But if productivity is flat, do 40% of hospitalists still feel they are providing unsafe care on a monthly basis? Without another study we don’t know, but here are some reasons why I’m hopeful. First, the hospitalist workforce is more experienced than 10 years ago and may be more efficient. Second, hospital medicine groups are larger and are therefore enabled to schedule more flexibly or enact jeopardy systems to level out workload on busy days. And lastly, hospitalists who feel they are providing unsafe care find greener pastures. The 2010 SoHM reported adult hospital medicine programs had a median 14.3% turnover rate. The 2020 SoHM turnover was 10.9%. While this is up from 2018 (7.4%) and 2016 (6.9%), the general trend is down.
Additionally, we all need to consider the possibility that there will be a disruptive innovation that will allow greater productivity for individual hospitalists while maintaining value. It is apparent the EHR is not yet that breakthrough. We all need to keep our eyes open, stay flexible, and be prepared to meet evolving demands on our programs.
We will see constant demands on hospitalists. But I’m hopeful that going forward expectations will increasingly shift away from simply working harder and seeing more patients, toward goals related to improving performance. Training programs generally produce excellent clinicians, but they often do not equip physicians to be excellent hospitalists. Successful hospital medicine programs will recruit lifelong learners and career hospitalists who are flexible and willing to innovate and adapt. The best programs will have structures in place to help excellent clinicians mature into the role of excellent hospitalists, and leaders that create and foster an environment of excellence.
Discover more 2020 SoHM Report data at www.hospitalmedicine.org/sohm.
Dr. Frederickson is medical director, hospital medicine and palliative care, at CHI Health, Omaha, Neb., and assistant professor at Creighton University, Omaha.
1. Michtalik HJ et al. Impact of Attending Physician Workload on Patient Care: A Survey of Hospitalists. JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(5):375-7. doi:.
2. Elliott DJ et al. Effect of Hospitalist Workload on the Quality and Efficiency of Care. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(5):786-93. doi:.