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.”
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.”