Alternative schedules boost hospitalist career satisfaction
by Lisa Ryan
Michael Radzienda, MD, FHM, once worked in a hospitalist program in which physicians were scheduled 30 days straight on clinical duty and 30 days off clinical duty. Although it sounds harsh by today’s standards, that job was so satisfying, he says, the schedule never felt like a burden. Conversely, he’s seen hospitalists work five days on and five days off, and the job was treacherous.
His point: Work schedules are just one influential piece of the job satisfaction pie.
“Satisfaction has more to do with work relationships and opportunities for growth,” says Dr. Radzienda, chief of hospital medicine and director of hospital medicine service at Medical College of Wisconsin/Froedtert Memorial Lutheran General Hospital in Milwaukee.
Shift-based staffing has become the norm, as more than 70% of hospitalist groups use a shift-based staffing model, according to the State of Hospital Medicine: 2010 Report Based on 2009 Data.1 That figure is up 40% from SHM’s 2005-2006 survey. Conversely, the number of HM groups employing call-based and hybrid (some shift, some call) coverage is declining—2.8% of groups employ call-based schedules, and 26.9% use a hybrid schedule. Those figures have dropped significantly from the 2005-2006 report, from 25% and 35%, respectively.
If you are going to make HM a career, you’ll need time to be with your family and pursue other interests, Dr. Radzienda says. As HM groups turn to more shift-based models, in which hospitalists work a set number of predetermined shifts and have no call responsibility, the challenge is setting a schedule that balances productivity and quality time off.
The most popular way to schedule is through blocks of five days on/five days off (5/5) or seven days on/seven days off (7/7), in which hospitalists work 12 or 14 hours at a time, says Troy Ahlstrom, MD, FHM, a member of SHM’s Practice Analysis Committee and CFO of Hospitalists of Northern Michigan, a hospitalist-owned and -managed group based in Traverse City, Mich. Many HM groups employ this model because it’s easy to schedule and is attractive to residents who want a fixed schedule. But from a career satisfaction standpoint, the 5/5 and 7/7 schedule models present their own issues.
Fairness is the first potential pitfall. If all of the physicians in a group work the same schedule, they all have to log the same number of shifts and receive the same compensation. This leaves little to no wiggle room for hospitalists who want to make more money by picking up more shifts or those who want to work fewer shifts, Dr. Ahlstrom says. “People have different income goals,” he adds.
Second, physicians have to see the same number of patients throughout the day. This doesn’t take into consideration the reality that some hospitalists naturally work faster than others, thereby forcing the slower-paced doctors to keep up with an imposed patient load. “Invariably, no matter what you do, people are different,” Dr. Ahlstrom says.
Another consideration is that when physicians are working 12 to 14 hours a day, essentially they have no time for activities other than work and sleep, which doesn’t match the realities of life. Inevitably, things in personal lives crop up, which leads to swapping shifts that the group scheduler doesn’t know about or overloading the scheduler with shift-change requests, Dr. Ahlstrom explains.
Additionally, 7/7 schedules and their ilk squeeze a year’s worth of work into a compressed time frame, which can lead to intense stress and burnout, says John Nelson, MD, FACP, MHM, director of the hospitalist practice at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, Wash., SHM co-founder, and practice management columnist for The Hospitalist. “Maximizing the number of days off is not the holy grail,” he says. “If you choose to shut your life down on days that you work, that is going to be toxic.”
Dr. Nelson has long advocated a flexible shift schedule that accommodates individual preferences by giving physicians in the group autonomy in deciding how much or how little they want to work. While the group as a whole has to get all the work done, the flexibility comes from one physician taking more shifts as another takes less.
Dr. Radzienda tries to create teams within his group by pairing hospitalists with similar scheduling preferences. For example, he might have a pair working 5/5 and another working 14/14. “Up front, it takes a lot of work, but once you template it out, it becomes a good strategy,” he says.
He also strives to build robust backup plans and jeopardy models (see “Surge Protection,” September 2010, p. 43) into the schedule for short-notice callouts, as you never know when a hospitalist will need to miss a day or two because of illness or a family emergency. “Psychologically, it helps to know that you don’t have to be a hero if you’re ill or emotionally strained,” Dr. Radzienda says.
Dr. Ahlstrom agrees that a flex-schedule strategy has a positive impact on hospitalists’ career satisfaction and longevity. He suggests hospitalists be allowed to specify how many patients they want to see and be compensated according to their workload through built-in bonuses for physicians who work more. Dr. Nelson suggests paying hospitalists per relative value unit (RVU) of work. “I think hospitalists would like it and find it liberating to be paid on production,” he says.
An added bonus to flexible work hours and patient load, according to Dr. Ahlstrom, is that pay difference “will lead to a far more collegial atmosphere, because physicians know they are getting compensated fairly for the amount of work done.”
Another advantage of a flexible schedule is hospitalists knowing they have the option of ramping up or scaling back the number of shifts they work, Dr. Ahlstrom says—for example, a physician who wants to reduce shifts in order to coach his daughter’s softball team or have Friday nights off to watch her son play high school football.
“You prevent burnout by allowing people to change their work schedule depending on what’s going on in their life,” Dr. Ahlstrom says. TH
Lisa Ryan is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.
The Hospitalist newsmagazine reports on issues and trends in hospital medicine. The Hospitalist reaches more than 25,000 hospitalists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, residents, and medical administrators interested in the practice and business of hospital medicine.