In my previous column, I reviewed different strategies for providing hospitalist practice night coverage based on the size of the group (February 2008, p. 61). I suggested that dedicated nocturnists are a valuable though expensive asset that any practice larger than about six to eight full-time equivalents (FTE) should consider.
This month, I offer additional thoughts about compensation for nocturnists. I’ll demonstrate why adding dedicated night coverage—in which the doctor working at night doesn’t work during the daytime hours the day before or after the night shift—may not increase practice workload significantly.
What follows is adapted from a new book I co-wrote with Joe Miller, senior vice president of SHM, and Win Whitcomb, MD, a hospitalist at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., and co-founder of SHM.1
If all hospitalists provide an equal amount of night coverage in rotation (e.g., each member of a four-person group works 61 nights annually), it’s not necessary to adjust the compensation scheme to reflect night work. A night-shift differential in this situation will not influence a doctor’s annual income relative to that of his partner hospitalists.
However, if the hospitalist program seeks more flexibility, it may be advisable to pay more for a night of work than a day of work. Under this scheme, hospitalists may trade day and night work among themselves, leading to enhanced satisfaction. For example, Dr. McCartney is willing to work some of Dr. Lennon’s nights because of the income benefit. Dr. Lennon may or may not work some of Dr. McCartney’s days in return.
If the practice has one or more dedicated nocturnists, they will need to realize some benefit to working only nights. This benefit can take many forms:
- The night hospitalist works less often than day doctors (e.g., day doctors work 220 days annually, night doctors work 182);
- The night hospitalist has a lighter patient load (e.g., a night hospitalist in a small practice typically sleeps three to six hours per night shift while the day doctors typically work a busy eight-to-12-hour shift);
- The night doctor earns more than the day doctors; or
- The night doctor has a higher priority in time-off scheduling.
It is common to combine these benefits. For example a night hospitalist might work less often than day doctors, have a lighter patient load, and earn the same annual income. Anecdotal experience shows that having more income or fewer workdays than day doctors is valued more than a reduced patient load.
For most practices, compensating hospitalists based significantly or entirely on their production can be a good idea but might be problematic for a night doctor. It could lead the night doctor to encourage marginal admissions, some of whom would need to be discharged by the daytime hospitalists hours later. In effect, the night hospitalist could say: “I’ll admit anyone I can get my hands on because my income will increase. I’ll leave it for the day doctors to sort out what to do with all these patients tomorrow.”