Practice Economics

Concerns Grow as Top Clinicians Choose Nonclinical Roles


On a spring day a couple of years ago, I met with some internal medicine residents in a “Healthcare Systems Immersion” elective. I was to provide thoughts about the nonclinical portion of my work that I spend consulting with other hospitalist groups.

I asked for their thoughts about whether the ranks of doctors providing direct bedside care were losing too many of the most talented clinicians to nonclinical roles. The most vocal resident was confident that was not the case; these doctors would ultimately have a positive impact on the care of larger numbers of patients through administrative work than through direct patient care.

I wonder if she is right.

Numerous Hospitalists Opt for Nonnclinical Work

It seems like lots of hospitalists are transitioning to nonclinical work. My experience is that most who have administrative or other nonclinical roles continue—for part of their time—to provide direct patient care. But some leave clinical work behind altogether. Some of them are very prominent people in our field, like the top physician at CMS, the current U.S. Surgeon General, and this year’s most influential physician executive as judged by Modern Healthcare. I think it is pretty cool that these people come from our specialty.

I couldn’t find published survey data on the portion of hospitalists, or doctors in any specialty, who have entirely (or almost entirely) nonclinical roles. My impression is that this was a vanishingly small number across all specialties 30 or 40 years ago, but it seems to have increased pretty dramatically in the last 10 years. At the start of my career, few hospitals had a physician in an administrative position. Now it is common.

Physician leadership roles now include information technology (CMIO), quality (CQO), leader of the employed physician group, and hospital CEO (at least two hospitalists I know are in this role). And there are lots of nonclinical roles for doctors outside of hospitals.

Pros, Cons for Healthcare

I’ve had mixed feelings watching many people leave clinical practice. Most of them, like those mentioned above, continue to make important contributions to our healthcare system; they improve the services and care patients receive. Yet it seems like some of the best clinicians are taken from active practice and are difficult to replace.

At the start of my career, the few doctors who left clinical practice for nonclinical work tended to do so late in their careers. Now many make this choice very early in their careers. Of the six or seven residents I met with above, several planned to pursue entirely nonclinical work either immediately upon completing residency or after just a few years of clinical practice. They were at one of the top internal medicine programs in the country and will, presumably, provide direct clinical care to a really small number of patients over their careers.

It makes me wonder if there is a meaningful effect of more talented people having, and exercising, the option to leave clinical practice, resulting in a tilt toward somewhat-less-talented doctors left to treat patients. I hope there is no meaningful effect in this direction, but I’m not sure.

Reasons to Move

My experience is that most doctors who have left clinical work will wax eloquent about how they really loved it and weren’t fleeing it but did so because they wanted to “try something new” or contribute to healthcare in other ways. I’m suspicious that for many of them this isn’t entirely true. Some must have been fleeing it. They were burned out, tired of being on call, and so on, and were eager to find relief from clinical work more than they were “drawn to a new career challenge.” They just don’t want to admit it.

I sometimes think about what several nationally prominent hospitalist leaders have said to me over my career. Not long ago, one said, “Wow. You’re still seeing patients and making rounds? I can’t believe it. You need to find something better.”

This doctor seemed to equate an entire career spent in clinical practice as something done mostly by those who aren’t talented enough to have other options. What a change from 30 or 40 years ago.

Several years ago, in a very moving conversation, another nationally prominent hospitalist leader told me, “It’s all about the patient and how we care for them at the bedside. There’s no better way we can spend our time.”

The Best Career

Within a few years, he left clinical practice entirely, even though he was still mid-career.

I hold in highest esteem hospitalists and other doctors who spend a full career in direct patient care and do it well. At the top of that list is my own dad, who is up there with Osler when it comes to dedicated physicians.

Of course, those who spend most or all of their time in nonclinical work really can make important contributions that help the healthcare system better serve patients, in some cases clearly making a bigger difference for more patients than they could via direct clinical care. We need talented people in both roles, but we also need to always be looking for ways to minimize the numbers of doctors who feel the need to flee a clinical career.

Like many hospitalists, I think about these things a lot when making decisions about my own career. I hope we all have the wisdom to make the best choices for ourselves, and for the patients we set out to serve when we entered medical school. TH

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 [email protected].

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