A New Schedule Could Be Better for Your Hospitalist Group

Present “hospitalist” in a word association exercise to a wide range of healthcare personnel in clinical and administrative roles, and many would instantly respond with “seven-on/seven-off schedule.”

Some numbers from SHM’s 2014 State of Hospital Medicine report:

  • 53.8%: Portion of hospitalist groups using a seven-on/seven-off schedule.
  • 182: Median number of shifts worked annually by a full-time hospitalist (standard contract hours, does not include “extra” shifts).
  • 65%: Portion of groups having day shifts that are 12.0–13.9 hours in length.

These numbers suggest to me that, at least outside of academia, the standard hospitalist is working 12-hour shifts on a seven-on/seven-off schedule. And that mirrors my experience working on-site with hundreds of hospitalist groups across the country.

In other words, the hospitalist marketplace has spoken unambiguously regarding the favored work schedule. In some ways, it is a defining feature of hospitalist practice. In the same way that a defining characteristic of Millennials is devotion to social media and that air travel is associated with cramped seats, this work schedule is a defining characteristic for hospitalists.

Schedule Benefits? Many …

There is a reason for its popularity: It is simple to understand and operationalize, it provides for good hospitalist-patient continuity, and having every other week off is often cited as a principle reason for becoming a hospitalist (in many cases, it might only take a clerk or administrator a few hours to create a group’s work schedule for a whole year). Many hospitalist groups have followed this schedule for a decade or longer, and while they might have periodically discussed moving to an entirely different model, most have stuck with what they know.

I’m convinced this schedule will be around for many years to come.

Not Ideal in All Respects

Despite this schedule’s popularity, I regularly talk with hospitalists who say it has become very stressful and monotonous. They say they would really like to change to something else but feel stuck by the complexity of alternative models and the difficulty achieving consensus within the group regarding what model offers enough advantages—and acceptable costs—to be worth it.

They cite as shortcomings of the seven-on/seven-off schedule:

  • It can be a Herculean task to alter the schedule to arrange a day or two off during the regularly scheduled week. They often give up on the effort, and over time, this can lead to some resentment toward their work.
  • There is a tendency to adopt a systole-diastole lifestyle, with no activities other than work during the week on (e.g., no trips to the gym, dinners out with family, etc.) and an effort to move all of these into the week off. They’ll say, “What other profession requires one to shut down their personal life for seven days every other week?”
  • It can be difficult to reliably use the seven days off productively. Sometimes it might be better to return to work after only two to four days off if at other times it were easy to arrange more than seven consecutive days off.
  • The “switch day” can be difficult for the hospital. Such schedules nearly always are arranged so that all the doctors conclude seven days of work on the same day and are replaced by others the following day. Every hospitalist patient (typically more than half of all patients in the hospital) gets a new doctor on the same day, and the whole hospital runs less efficiently as a result.

Change Your Schedule?

Who am I kidding? Few groups, probably none to be precise, are likely to change their schedule as a result of reading this column. But I’m among what seems to be a small contingent who believe alternative schedules can work. Whether your group decides to pursue a different model should be entirely up to its members, but it is worthwhile to periodically discuss the costs and benefits of your current schedule as well as what other options might be practical. In most cases the discussion will conclude without any significant change, but discussing it periodically might turn up worthwhile small adjustments.

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