Despite never advancing his musical tastes beyond the arena bands of the 1970s and ’80s (think Def Leppard), Mark Williams, MD, FACP, FHM, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Hospital Medicine, has done a great job in securing informative and meaningful research and opinion for the journal. Did you see read the July/August 2010 issue of JHM? It is a great example of content uniquely relevant to hospitalists: several original research articles documenting how hospitalists spend their time. Anyone thinking about the best way to organize and operate a hospitalist practice should read through these studies, along with one published by Kevin O’Leary, MD, and colleagues in the March/April 2006 issue.1 But as a service, I’ll provide a CliffsNotes version of them, along with some comments here.
What all the studies demonstrate is that academic hospitalists spend only about 15% to 20% of their time in direct patient care, generally defined as time spent taking a patient’s history and examination, meeting with families, etc. Indirect patient care, such as time spent reviewing records, documenting, and communicating with consultants and other patient care staff, consumes about 60% to 70% of their time. The remainder of time is spent in transit (around 7% of each day) and in personal activities.
Remember, all these studies reported on academic hospitalists in large academic medical centers. As noted in the discussion sections, the results in nonteaching community hospitals might be different. My guess is that community hospitalists spend about the same portion of time in the broad categories above, but the individual activities within each category might differ. So I’m willing to believe that these studies tell us something about the majority of hospitalists who practice outside of academia.
90 Minutes of Doctoring?
While the JHM studies assess hospitalist time in a number of different categories, I think it makes the most sense to divide our time into just two categories: “real doctoring” and other. We’ll probably never see a study that divides hospitalists’ time that way, as there would be endless debate about what is and isn’t real doctoring. But it is worth thinking about your work this way.
A lot of what the studies generally defined as indirect patient care is still “real doctoring.” Things like reviewing old records are critically important and typically can’t be done adequately by a nonclinician. But the 10 minutes you spent to get the CD of outside X-rays to show up on your computer, and rearranging the faxed pages so they’re all oriented the same way and in order, are not a good use of your time; a clerical person could do it.
I periodically have an experience that makes me think I spend too much time on patients’ social issues (e.g. long conversations about why Medicare won’t pay for a patient’s skilled nursing facility stay) and too little on “real doctoring.” One such experience is when I have a patient with an unusual pulmonary infiltrate and the radiologist is able to generate a much more comprehensive differential diagnosis than I can. This is embarrassing. Maybe the radiologist is just smarter than I am, but I think it could be because, compared to me, he spends more of his time every day thinking about “real medicine,” such as pulmonary diseases, and less time dealing with nonclinical issues.