Scheduling patterns in hospital medicine

Increasing discontent with 7-on-7-off schedule



For years, the Society of Hospital Medicine has been asking hospital medicine programs about operational metrics in order to understand and catalog how they are functioning and evolving. After compensation, the scheduling patterns that hospital medicine groups (HMGs) are using is the most reviewed item in the report.

When hospital medicine first started, 7 days working followed by 7 days off (7-on-7-off) quickly became vogue. No one really knows how this happened, but it was most likely due to the fact that hospital medicine most closely resembled emergency medicine and scheduling similar to emergency medicine seemed to make sense (that is, 14 shifts per month). That along with the assumption that continuity of care was critical in inpatient care and would improve quality most likely resulted in the popularity of the 7-on-7-off schedule.

Dr. Rachel George, executive vice president and chief medical officer of Hospital Medicine at Schumacher Clinical Partners, a national provider of emergency medicine and hospital medicine services.
Dr. Rachel George
Each new survey allows us the opportunity to observe changes in scheduling patterns as hospital medicine matures and to see which scheduling patterns gain or lose popularity.

In the most recent survey in 2016, HMGs were once again asked to comment on how they schedule. Groups were able to choose from five scheduling options:

1. Seven days on followed by 7 days off

2. Other fixed rotation block schedules (such as 5-on 5-off; or 10-on 5-off)

3. Monday to Friday with rotating weekend coverage

4. Variable schedule

5. Other

Looking at HMG programs that serve only adult populations, a majority of them (48%) follow a fixed rotating schedule either 7 days on followed by 7 days off, or some other fixed schedule, while 31% of programs that responded stated that they used a Monday to Friday schedule. Looking at the programs as a whole, it would seem that the 7-on-7-off schedule was quickly losing popularity while the Monday to Friday schedule was increasingly being used. However, this broad generalization doesn’t really give you the full picture.

Upon analyzing the data further, we see some distinct differences arise based on program size. Small programs (fewer than 10 full-time employees [FTEs]) are much more likely to schedule a Monday to Friday schedule than any other model, whereas only a handful of large programs (greater than 20 FTEs) schedule in this way, rather choosing to use a 7-on-7-off schedule.

The last survey was done in 2014 and a lot has changed since then. Significantly more programs responded in 2016, compared with 2014 (530 vs. 355) and the majority of this increase was made of up smaller programs (fewer than 10 FTEs). Programs with four or fewer FTEs, compared with the prior survey, increased by over 400% (37 programs in 2014 vs. 151 programs in 2016). Overall, programs with fewer than 10 FTEs constituted over 50% of the total programs that responded in 2016 (whereas they made up only a third in 2014). This was particularly significant since size of the program was the one variable that determined how a program might schedule – other factors like geographic region, academic status, or primary hospital GME status did not show significant variance in how groups scheduled.

The second major change that occurred is that these same small programs (those with fewer than 10 FTEs) moved overwhelmingly to a Monday to Friday schedule. In 2014, only 3% of small programs scheduled using a Monday to Friday pattern, but in 2016 almost 50% of small programs reported scheduling in this way. This change in the overall composition of programs, with small programs now making up over 50% of the programs that reported, and the specific change in how small programs schedule results in a noteworthy decrease of programs using a 7 days on followed by 7 days off (7-on-7-off) schedule (53.8% in 2014 and only 38.1% in 2016), and a corresponding increase in the number of programs that schedule using a Monday to Friday schedule (4% in 2014 to 31% in 2016).

In distinct contrast to programs with fewer than 10 FTEs, a very similar number of programs with greater than 20 FTEs reported in 2016 as in 2014 – there was no increase in this subgroup. I’m not clear at this time if this is because there is truly no increase in the number of large programs nationally, or if there is another factor causing larger programs to under-report. The large programs that did report data in 2016 continue to utilize a 7-on-7-off schedule or another fixed rotating block schedule more than 50% of the time. In fact, the utilization of one of these two scheduling patterns increased slightly from 2014 to 2016 (from 52% to 58%). Those that did not use one of the prior mentioned scheduling patterns were most likely to schedule with a variable schedule. A Monday to Friday schedule was almost never used in programs of this size and showed no significant change from 2014 to 2016.

This snapshot highlights the changing landscape in hospital medicine. Hospital medicine is penetrating more and more into smaller and smaller hospitals, and has even made it into critical access hospitals. As recently as 5-10 years ago, it was felt that these hospitals were too small to have a hospital medicine program. This is likely one of the reasons for the increase in programs with four or fewer FTEs. There has also been increasing discontent with the 7-on-7-off schedule, which many feel is leading to burnout. Dr. Bob Wachter famously said during the closing plenary of the 2016 Society of Hospital Medicine Annual Meeting that the 7-on-7-off schedule was “a mistake.” Despite this brewing discontent, larger programs have not changed their scheduling patterns, likely because finding a another scheduling pattern that is effective, supports high-quality care, and is sustainable for such a large group is challenging.

Many people will say that there are as many different types of hospital medicine programs as there are hospital medicine programs. This is true for scheduling as for other aspects of hospital medicine operations. As we continue to grow and evolve as an industry, scheduling patterns will continue to change and evolve as well. For now, two patterns are emerging – smaller programs are utilizing a Monday to Friday schedule and larger programs are utilizing a 7-on-7-off schedule. Only time will tell if these scheduling patterns persist or continue to evolve.

Dr. George is a board certified internal medicine physician and practicing hospitalist with over 15 years of experience in hospital medicine. She has been actively involved in the Society of Hospital Medicine and has participated in and chaired multiple committees and task forces. She is currently executive vice president and chief medical officer of Hospital Medicine at Schumacher Clinical Partners, a national provider of emergency medicine and hospital medicine services. She lives in the northwest suburbs of Chicago with her family.

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