Medicolegal Issues

Shift Perspectives


The shifts worked by a hospital medicine group can reflect its values or simply ensure adequate coverage. Either way, the shifts your group assigns can play a significant role in recruiting new hospitalists and retaining those you have. And there may be more scheduling options than you have considered.

The Most Attractive Shift Debunked

Many new hospitalists seek as much time off as possible, and there are plenty of groups catering to that desire. “Most physicians prefer time off, and seven on, seven off is attractive in recruiting new people to your practice—but it strikes me as a poisonous way to work,” says John Nelson, MD, co-founder of SHM, medical director of the hospitalist practice at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, Wash., and author of the “Practice Management” column in The Hospitalist. Dr. Nelson acts as a consultant to hospitalist practices around the country and has written articles and given presentations on the topic of scheduling for hospital medicine groups.

Dr. Nelson understands the attractions of working seven on, seven off—particularly for young physicians. “Even seven on is not as bad as being an intern; it’s easier than they were used to in their residency,” he says. “But I worry this schedule might increase burnout and resentment of work. It’s asystole/diastole lifestyle and may not be a healthy way to organize your life or your career.”

The shifts your group assigns can play a significant role in recruiting new hospitalists and retaining those you have. And there may be more scheduling options than you have considered.

An Alternative Scheduling Idea

Dr. Nelson has his own unique ideas of how a group’s shift assignments should work to ensure better coverage and keep hospitalists happy. His ideas are not just theories—his own group lives and works by a flexible arrangement.

Their schedule is partly dictated by a desire to keep the physicians happy and healthy. “I believe a constant mix of work and the rest of your life is best,” says Dr. Nelson. “You shouldn’t have to put the rest of your life into the seven days that you’re off.”

So Dr. Nelson’s practice allows considerable flexibility to each physician, but ensures that any given workday is shorter than 12 hours. “I think it’s better not to have a rigidly repeating schedule,” he explains.

Dr. Nelson’s group uses pagers to ensure a hospitalist is always available during coverage hours, but they don’t adhere to a strict schedule. “So many groups work specified shifts, whether it’s 10 or 12 hours, and I think there’s a better idea,” he says. “If everyone has to punch a clock, it interferes with flexibility. I would not tell doctors when to start or stop.”

Of course, as a group, someone has to be available for emergencies all the time, and physicians may need to start daily rounds to write most discharge orders by a certain time. “I have a pager on by 7 a.m., but nothing says I have to be in the hospital by 7 a.m.,” says Dr. Nelson. “It’s often in my interest to start rounding earlier than 7 a.m. so that I can finish earlier or have time for a break later in the day.”

Greater Flexibility = Better Coverage

Another benefit to moving to shorter, more flexible days is ensuring adequate coverage. “Rigidly defined shifts almost never precisely match the day’s workload,” points out Dr. Nelson. Therefore, his practice boosts staffing to cover busy periods. “My recommendation is to intentionally overstaff for the average day’s workload. When it’s busy, everyone can pitch in and work an extra one or two hours.”

If it’s not busy, one or more doctors may leave early. “This is nimble and responsive to the day-to-day workload,” says Dr. Nelson.

To move from a seven on, seven off schedule to this model, Dr. Nelson recommends that every doctor in the practice work 30 to 40 more days annually. A seven on, seven off schedule would have a physician work 182.5 days per year; if you decrease the hours per day and boost the number of working days to 220 a year, your physicians will be working the same number of hours, but in shorter days—even if the practice workload stays the same and each individual doctor’s annual productivity stays the same.

“It’s more realistic to work more days when they’re not so grueling,” says Dr. Nelson. “Plus, you have a built-in capacity to meet a sudden increase in workload. Imagine an eight-man group, where four doctors each work 12-hour shifts. Now imagine that instead of four, you get a fifth doctor to show up every day. [You can get this fifth doctor without adding staff if each doctor works more days annually.] When a day is unpredictably busy, the physicians won’t be absolutely overwhelmed. If it’s not busy, you can send someone home early. You get a lot more flexibility.”

For a hospital medicine group, implementing a flexible schedule such as this generally requires payment for production, which ties individual physicians into the economic health of their group. Compensation matches workload, allowing individual physicians to work to their values—more money or more free time.

“I think it’s better to pay on production,” says Dr. Nelson. “That way each person has the opportunity to choose. If one values money, he can volunteer to stay and work more and make more money. Each works to their own sweet spot, whereas a seven on, seven off schedule with rigidly defined shifts forces everyone to do the same thing.”

Physicians working on a flexible schedule still need to get their work finished each day, but they have more autonomy in how and when they get it done. “Doctors who work fast can go home early; physicians can decide for themselves the right balance for spending time each patient,” says Dr. Nelson. “As long as they understand there are economic consequences … and act with reasonableness. In our group, we get the work done. There’s no official start or stop time. Each of us chooses an individual work style. There are boundaries; the work needs to be done. There are costs as well, but I believe this system is healthy and liberating.” TH

Jane Jerrard regularly writes “Career Development.”

Shift Work and Sleep

It’s not just physicians—shift workers in all fields often prefer 12-hour shifts. Most industries that use 12-hour shifts rotate those shifts weekly, but even when rotations are longer, it takes longer to reset your biological clock across a 12-hour change than it does for an eight-hour adjustment, according to “Optimal Scheduling Strategies for Emergency Medicine” by Dennis C. Whitehead, MD, FACEP (available at

In demanding work such as emergency medicine, you have a tendency to fatigue in the last few hours of your 12 hours on—especially if those last hours occur on a new night rotation when your alertness would be down anyway.

Quick Tip on Successful Hiring

Carol Westfall, president of Cejka Search, a national physician search organization, recommends this tip for dealing with your top physician candidates: “If you believe that your organization will make an offer, ask the candidate at the end of the interview, ‘If we extend an offer to you, would you accept it?’ This will reinforce in the candidate’s mind the belief that your organization has a strong interest in him or her.”

Online Jump-Point for Docs

Looking for a less clinical yet comprehensive Web portal to keep you informed? Check out the Doctor’s Page at With links to sites offering everything from PubMed to medical humor, coding tools to an overview of the day’s headlines, the Doctor’s Page calls itself “the Web site for the practicing physician.”

Heard from a Pharmaceutical Rep Lately?

The following statistics appeared on the Pharmaceutical Representative Web site ( in May:

How often do you call on hospitalists?

Never: 38%

Once a month: 22%

Once a week: 13%

More than once a week: 15%

What's a hospitalist?: 11%

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