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The Fast, Furious Future


I read the ads.” “The what?” I replied, dumbfounded.

“The ads.”

“Not ‘In the Literature,’ ‘Key Clinical Questions,’ the cover stories, John Nelson’s practice management column?”

“No,” “no,” “no” and “no” were the responses.

Encasing my slightly bruised ego behind a facade of curiosity, I inquired of my friend who directs a large community hospitalist practice why the first thing he reads in The Hospitalist are the advertisements.

“Because I need to know what the competition is offering, so that I can keep my docs,” my friend explained.

“With that it was clearer than ever that we have a shortage of hospitalists. Let’s take a look at some numbers.”

Hospital medicine faces an ever growing workforce shortage that has the potential to cripple the field.

Numbers Part I

The good news is there are close to 20,000 hospitalists in the U.S. This meteoric rise occurred in 11 years; something emergency medicine took 20 years to accomplish. It is commonly assumed the mature hospital medicine field will grow to 30,000 providers. More grandiose estimates place the top estimate as high as 70,000.

Numbers Part II

The concerning news is the number of adults 65 and older is expected to double by 2030. This demographic accounts for nearly 50% of all hospital admissions, and thus heralds an onslaught of growth in hospital medicine. Workforce models predict a physician shortfall of 200,000 by the year 2020.1

Numbers Part III

The frightening news is the number of U.S. medical school graduates matching into internal medicine (IM) residency programs has dropped from 3,884 in 1985 to 2,660 in 2007.1 Only 22% of graduating U.S. medical school students chooses to match in IM and only 55% of IM residency positions are filled by U.S. medical school graduates.2 Nearly 60% of IM graduates choose subspecialist careers, with only 8% choosing hospitalist careers.3

Runaway Train

The U.S. is likely to witness an astronomic growth in the supply of hospitalized patients. Fewer students are choosing IM, with the majority of these opting for subspecialty careers. Hospital medicine faces an ever growing workforce shortage that has the potential to cripple the field.

I often wonder if hospital medicine is developing too fast. Our haste to grow and take on new business can, at times, lead us astray. To be sure, some of this growth is thrust on us by external forces, such as the mass exodus of primary care doctors out of the hospital and hospital executives’ eagerness to tap the resource efficiency of the hospitalist model. However, we cannot allow our foremost mission—improving patient experiences and outcomes—to be lost in a landslide of growth that outstrips our staffing.

Limit Growth

To that end, I think one very logical solution to this pending workforce shortage is to limit growth. Take a breather and let the supply catch up with the demand before growing further. The skeptic will say this is not possible, but recall that hospitalized patients received care for hundreds of years prior to hospitalists. Ask yourself how much of the work you do could be done by another physician group. A recent study I was part of reported more than 22% of a community hospitalist’s workload consists of orthopedic, neurological, and general surgical diagnoses.4 Our study design was unable to account for patients previously cared for by medical sub-specialists, such as cardiologists and gastroenterologists, but I suspect the number is large, as well.

Although a 22% decrease in volume across the board would not solve all of our problems, it would be a solid start. Consider this the next time a surgical or medical subspecialty group requests you care for their patients. It may be a poor business move to refuse this work, but perhaps you can build a collaborative, long-term plan that allows you to better care for the patient obligations you have today while incrementally caring for their patients as your group matures.

Higher, Faster, Farther

Another method to tackle the hospitalist shortage is to see more patients with the same amount of providers. Doing this requires more than just increasing the patient numerator as you hold the provider denominator steady. Rather, it requires real systems changes to enhance provider efficiency. A significant amount of a hospitalists’ daily workload consists of non-patient care activity, such as searching for charts, waiting for consultants to call back and scheduling follow-up appointments. The challenge to future hospitalists will be to tame these inefficiencies by developing more streamlined hospital systems and care processes.

This may include hiring assistants, rounding staff, and/or mid-level providers to incrementally increase the number of patients the group can see per physician. These are not without risks and barriers, and many groups currently are wrestling with how to best utilize and integrate these providers in a cost-effective manner. However, I think it is likely these components will provide the future scaffolding to allow groups to care for ever increasing numbers of patients.

Prime the Pump

Perhaps, most importantly, we need to develop ways to attract more medical students and residents to hospitalist careers. This will be challenging and falls squarely to my academic hospital medicine colleagues, as our learners see us as the yardstick for a hospitalist career. Unfortunately, the growth trend in academic hospital medicine has been in non-teaching or uncovered services. These jobs often are an academic necropolis, with the providers routinely being overworked and devalued by their institution.

As a result, academic hospitalist positions often times are filled by recent residency graduates awaiting a fellowship. These “R4” or “pretending” positions provide very rickety underpinnings from which to build the foundation of hospital medicine. Don’t for an instant think this goes unnoticed by our student and resident colleagues who choose their career based on the role models they see early in their training.

It is essential hospital medicine develops truly sustainable academic careers replete with opportunities to fulfill the inimitable tenets of academic medicine—teaching and scholarly work. For these reasons, SHM has partnered with the Society of General Internal Medicine and the Association of Chiefs in General Internal Medicine to develop the Academic Hospitalist Academy. The four-day academy premiers next fall. Its goal is to enable academic hospitalists to become exceptional educators, institutional leaders, and successful scholars—the exact type of role models that will attract the best and the brightest to the field of hospital medicine for generations to come. TH

Dr. Glasheen is associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado Denver, where he serves as director of the hospital medicine program and the hospitalist training program, and as associate program director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program.


1. Hauer KE, Durning SJ, Kernan WN, et al. Factors associated with medical students’ career choices regarding internal medicine. JAMA. 2008;300:1154-1156,1164.

2. Hauer KE, Fagan MJ, Kernan W, Mintz M, Durning SJ. Internal medicine clerkship directors’ perceptions about student interest in internal medicine careers. J Gen Intern Med. 2008;1101-1104.

3. McDonald FS, West CP, Popkave C, Kolars JC. Educational debt and reported career plans among internal medicine residents. Ann Inter Med. 2008;149:416-420.

4. Glasheen JJ, Epstein KR, Siegal E, Kutner JS, Prochazka AV. The spectrum of community based hospitalist practice: A call to tailor internal medicine residency training. Arch Intern Med. 2007;167:727-729.

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