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The Vacation Conundrum


The vacation conundrum most people face has to do with things like whether to drive or fly, or whether to sleep on the ground or in a hotel. But some hospitalists encounter tricky problems when figuring out how to operationalize their contractual provision for vacation time.

What is the Vacation Conundrum?

I’m a big believer in hospitalists having liberal amounts of time off, but I think most practices should avoid contractually specifying vacation time. This may sound contradictory and terribly unfair to the doctor. But avoiding a contractual guarantee of vacation time doesn’t mean the hospitalist gets any less time off. And the way hospitalist contracts address vacation time has gotten a lot of organizations in trouble. Let me explain.

Contracts often stipulate that a hospitalist will have a specified number of weeks of vacation time annually, and this language has usually been taken from the organization’s existing contracts with other physicians. But confusion often arises some time after the hospitalist practice is up and running. One big problem is deciding who will cover for the hospitalist on vacation. If all doctors work extra shifts to cover for a member of the practice who is on vacation, they will all take turns working extra—a practice that negates the effect of the promised holiday. Another problem is that most hospitalists follow non-traditional work schedules, making it difficult to determine which of the days not worked are vacation days and which are days the doctor just wasn’t scheduled to work.

To better understand this issue, it is worth thinking about how most hospitalist schedules differ from that of a typical office-based doctor or businessperson. Someone in business is usually expected to work every Monday through Friday of the year—except government holidays. Those weekdays that the business person doesn’t work are usually regarded as vacation days. (Note that I’m intentionally ignoring sick time in this discussion.) Weekend days are almost never regarded as vacation days in the business world.

I want to emphasize … that a hospitalist will have exactly the same amount of time off for vacation or any other purpose in a contract that just specifies the number of shifts/days worked and is silent on vacation time.

But things are far more complicated for hospitalists because of the non-traditional—not always Monday through Friday—schedule they work. If a hospitalist has Tuesday and Wednesday off this week, should that be counted as vacation time or simply weekend days displaced into the middle of the week because the doctor worked the prior weekend? It is often impossible to answer this question unambiguously.

Another issue to be considered is that decisions about vacation time and the normal—non-vacation—schedule the hospitalists use are often made independently. For example, many groups use a seven days on-seven days off schedule, with 12-hour shifts on each worked day. This might lead to an agreement that every seven worked days will count as two weeks of work that has been compressed into one week on the calendar. If that’s the case, debate can arise when trying to figure out what one week of vacation really means.

One could reasonably argue that it means the doctor is relieved of five days of work, because in most jobs a week off means being off Monday through Friday. Or, because every seven worked days counts as two weeks of work, a week off could mean being relieved of half of those days—or 3.5 days off. Lastly, a hospitalist could reasonably argue that a week off means being relieved of all seven days of one of the worked weeks. This last approach is the most common way the issue is handled. Specifying vacation in numbers of days or hours, rather than in numbers of weeks, helps but does not eliminate this confusion.

Things can get really tricky when hospitalists start adjusting their standard work schedule. They might shorten or lengthen certain existing shifts or add new shifts (e.g., an evening admitting shift) all of which complicates figuring out what a day or week of vacation really means. Think about a group that has a standard schedule of 10-hour day shifts, 14-hour night shifts, and a six-hour evening admitting shift (e.g., 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.). What will a day or week of vacation mean for them? Maybe they could specify a certain number of hours of vacation rather than days or weeks. That would be useful only for practices that contract for doctors to work a specified number of hours annually, which is probably not the best way to organize a hospitalist’s work. And hours of vacation time can get pretty complicated because doctors usually don’t regard an hour of a day shift as equivalent to an hour of the night or evening shift.

I have a great relationship with a hospital executive who works a Monday-through-Friday schedule. For years, when she noticed that I had been off for a few days, she would always ask if I had just gotten back from “vacation.” I wouldn’t bother to explain to her that it usually wasn’t vacation; it was just days I wasn’t scheduled to work to make up for working 12 to 20 consecutive days. But after about a year of her asking me about my vacation every two or three weeks, she mentioned how much she envied that I had so much vacation time, when in fact I had worked more days that year—had less time off and less vacation time—than she had. I could have taken the time to respond to each of her inquiries about my vacations by explaining which were just days I wasn’t scheduled to work and which really were vacation days. But the distinction is really arbitrary. As long as I’m getting enough time off—a lot—how each of those days is labeled doesn’t really matter.

Solutions to the Vacation Conundrum

I think it’s best to use one of the following two approaches to avoid confusion about vacation time:

  1. Specify how many shifts—or other work periods—the hospitalist is expected to work monthly or annually; or
  2. Agree—perhaps in a contract—that each hospitalist will work the same number of days (shifts) annually unless doctors mutually decide to do otherwise.

All of the other days can be thought of as days not scheduled to work—weekends, if you will, even if the days off occur during the week instead of Saturday and Sunday—vacation days, or even CME days. That way there is no need to keep track of how the days not worked are labeled or classified.

Full-time hospitalists in the group I am part of work 210 days annually. After I explain our schedule to a prospective new member of the group, I’m often asked how much vacation a new hire will get. I explain that we just specify how much work is expected of a doctor, and the non-worked days can be classified any way they would like. Understandably, some people really want a provision for vacation in the contract, so I will sometimes ask them to tell me how many vacation days they would like annually. If they say they’d like 21 days of vacation, I tell them that will be fine. We will write the contract to reflect the 231 days they are expected to work annually, but they will have 21 days of vacation. So they’re back to working the same 210 days a year that the rest of us work.


If your current contract specifies numbers of days—or weeks or hours—of vacation time and that works well, without any confusion about what constitutes a vacation day, then there is no reason to change anything right now. But you should think about what a day of vacation might mean if you change your current schedule a great deal—if you changed the duration of shifts, for example. If that might cast uncertainty on what a day of vacation means, then consider developing a contract that is silent on vacation and just specifies how much work is expected of the doctor.

I want to emphasize again that a hospitalist will have exactly the same amount of time off for vacation or any other purpose in a contract that just specifies the number of shifts/days worked and is silent on vacation time. This does not take anything away from the doctor. It is simply a different way to address the issue in the contract, while eliminating a lot of potential confusion and frustration.

If you want to know if this is really a reasonable and workable approach to vacation time, you should talk with the emergency department (ED) doctors at your hospital. If you ask them how much vacation they get, they’re likely to look puzzled and say something like, “I don’t know how much vacation time I get. All I know is that I work 14 shifts a month.” Years ago, the non-traditional working schedule used by ED doctors led many or most groups to adopt the approach to vacation I’m suggesting for hospitalists. TH

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988 and is a co-founder and past-president of SHM. He is a principal in Nelson/Flores Associates, a national hospitalist practice management consulting firm. This column represents his views and is not intended to reflect an official position of SHM.

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