Practice Management

Why Hospitalist Morale is Declining and Ways to Improve It


 

Some hospitals have begun to resist providing more support, and this translates into stress and lower morale for hospitalists. This is far from a universal issue, but it does lead to lower morale for hospitalists who face it.
Some hospitals have begun to resist providing more support, and this translates into stress and lower morale for hospitalists. This is far from a universal issue, but it does lead to lower morale for hospitalists who face it.Image Credit: SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

Using quotes to ensure that the results were only those that include the two words adjacent to one another, rather than separated, I entered the following phrases into my Google search engine:

  • “hospitalist burnout” = 1,580 results
  • “hospitalist morale” = 208 results
  • “hospitalist well-being” = 0 results

I think the number of results suggests the level of interest in each topic and, if that is the case, clearly thinking about how hospitalists are doing in their careers is more commonly done through the paradigm of burnout than the other two terms. (Of course, there may be other terms that I didn’t consider.) In fact, there have been a handful of published studies of hospitalist burnout and job satisfaction.1,2

Those studies generally have shown both reasonably high levels of job satisfaction and troubling levels of burnout.

But I’ve been thinking about hospitalist morale for a while. I think morale is reasonably distinct from both burnout and job satisfaction.

Causes of a National Decline in Hospitalist Morale

I think hospitalist morale has declined some over the past two or three years across the country. This observation is meaningful because it comes from my experience working with a lot of hospitalist groups coast to coast. But I’m the first to admit it is just anecdotal and is subject to my own biases.

I can think of several things contributing to a decline in morale.

EHR adoption. Near the top of the list is the adoption of EHRs in many hospitals, which typically leads doctors in other specialties to seek hospitalist assistance with EHR-related tasks (e.g. medicine reconciliation and order writing) even in cases where there is little or no clinical reason for hospitalist involvement. Lots of hospitalists complain about this. To be clear, in many hospitals the hospitalists are reasonably content with using the EHR, but they experience ongoing frustration and low morale resulting from nonclinical work other doctors pressure them to take over.

Observation status. Many hospitals began classifying a larger portion of patients as observation status over the last few years; at the same time, patients and families have become more aware of how much of a disadvantage this is. In many cases, it is the hospitalist who takes the brunt of patient and family frustration. This can get awfully stressful and frustrating, and I think it is a contributor to allegations of malpractice.

Budgetary stress. Ever since SHM began collecting survey data in the late 1990s, the financial support hospitals have been providing to hospitalists has increased dramatically. The most recent State of Hospital Medicine report, published in 2104, showed median support provided by hospitals of $156,063 per FTE hospitalist, per year. Some hospitals have begun to resist providing more support, and this translates into stress and lower morale for hospitalists. This is far from a universal issue, but it does lead to lower morale for hospitalists who face it.

Many other factors may be contributing to a national decline in morale, but I think these are some of the most important.

What Can Be Done?

Some hospitalist groups have great morale now and don’t need to do much of anything right now, but some groups should think about a deliberate strategy to improve it.

Sadly, there isn’t a prescription that is sure to work. But there are some things you can try.

Self-care. The field of palliative care has thought a lot about caring for caregivers, and hospitalist groups might want to adopt some of their practices. Search the Internet on “self-care” + “palliative care,” and you’ll find a lot of interesting things. The group I’m part of launched a deliberate program of professionally led and facilitated hospitalist self-care, with high hopes that included mindful meditation, among other things. As soon as we had designed our program, the Mayo Clinic published their favorable experience with a program that was very similar to what we had planned, and I thought we would see similar benefits.3

But, while all who attended the sessions thought they were valuable, attendance was so poor that we ended up cancelling the program. The hospitalists were interested in attending but were either on service and busy seeing patients, or were off and didn’t want to drive in to work solely for the purpose of reducing work stress.

I’m convinced a self-care program is valuable but very tricky to schedule effectively. Maybe others have come up with effective ways of overcoming this problem.

Social connections. Some hospitalist groups seem to have little social and personal connection to other physicians and hospital leaders. I think this results in lower hospitalist morale and tends to be self-reinforcing. If you’re in such a group, you and your hospitalist colleagues should deliberately seek better relationships with other doctors and hospital administrative leaders. Ensure that you visit with others at lunch, talk with them at committee meetings, ask about their vacation and personal activities, and pursue activities with them outside of work.

When these sorts of social connections are strong, work is far more satisfying and you’re much more likely to be treated as a peer by other doctors. I think this is really important and shouldn’t be overlooked if your group is suffering from low morale.

Adaptive work. Lastly, you might want to approach changes to your work and morale as “adaptive work,” rather than “technical work.” Space doesn’t permit a description of these, but it is worth reading about how they differ. Many groups will find value in reframing their approach to aspects of work they don’t like as adaptive work.


Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988. He is co-founder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is co-director for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. Write to him at john.nelson@nelsonflores.com.

References

  1. Hinami K, Whelan CT, Wolosin RJ, Miller JA, Wetterneck TB. Worklife and satisfaction of hospitalists: toward flourishing careers. J Gen Intern Med. 2012;27(1):28-36.
  2. Hoff TH, Whitcomb WF, Williams K, Nelson JR, Cheesman RA. Characteristics and work experiences of hospitalists in the United States. Arch Intern Med. 2001;161(6):851-858.
  3. West CP, Dyrbye LN, Rabatin JT, et al. Intervention to promote physician well-being, job satisfaction, and professionalism: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(4):527-533.
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