John Nelson: Heavy Workloads

Now that HM is moving (or has moved?) from infancy to adolescence or even maturity, you might think that we would have reached some sort of consensus on what a reasonable workload—or patient volume—for a hospitalist is. My sense is that conventional wisdom says a reasonable average daily workload for a daytime rounding/admitting hospitalist is in the range of 12 to 17 billed encounters. And to average this volume, the doctor will have a number of days with more or fewer patients.

After thinking about average workload, the next question is: What is a reasonable upper limit for patient volume on a single day? Here, opinion seems to be a little fuzzier, but I think most would say a hospitalist should be expected to see more than 20 patients in a single day only on rare occasions and on, say, no more than 10 days annually. Keep in mind that a hospitalist who has 22 patients today still has a pretty good chance they will have 20 or more tomorrow, and the day after. High volumes are not a single-day phenomenon, either, because it usually takes a number of days for those patients to reach discharge—and the doctor to realize a decline in workload.

But these numbers are only conventional wisdom. There are little research data to guide our thinking about patient volumes, and thoughtful people sometimes arrive at very different conclusions. As I’ve written in this space previously, I think each individual hospitalist should have significant influence or autonomy to decide the appropriate or optimal patient volume for themselves or their group. This usually requires that doctors are connected to the economic and quality-of-care effects of their patient volume choices, something many hospitalists resist.

Divergence of Opinion

But given lots of autonomy, some hospitalists could make poor choices. I have had the experience of working with hospitalists in three practices around the country who are confident that, at least for themselves, very high patient volumes are safe and reasonable. These high-energy hospitalists see as many as 30 or 40 patients per day, day after day.

At one of these practices, I sat down with the doctors on duty that day at 1 p.m. and talked uninterrupted by pager or patient-care issues for nearly three hours. It was only at the end of the meeting that they explained each of them was seeing around 30 patients that day but had nearly finished rounds before our meeting started. I was stunned. (I probably wouldn’t stop for lunch, to say nothing of a three-hour meeting, to see just 20 patients in a day.)

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