Practice Economics

Real Doctoring


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.

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.”

Time-Motion Studies

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.

Even though we’re paid for a full day’s work, I suspect many hospitalists might spend only about 90 minutes a day immersed in thought about “real medicine,” while doctors in most other specialties probably spend a lot more. If I’m right, then it shouldn’t be a surprise that after practicing for many years, the radiologist who spends several hours a day exercising his fund of medical knowledge probably has more command of some clinical things than a hospitalist who does so only 90 minutes a day. Actively practicing as a hospitalist might not be as effective a method of maintaining proficiency as it is in other specialties. More than many other specialties, we need to rely on self-study and continuing education courses to prevent erosion of our knowledge base.

I’ve just made up this 90-minute figure. I have no idea how accurate it might be, and, the JHM studies don’t offer a lot of insight either. Clearly, it varies a lot by individual doctor and practice setting. How much of your day do you think you spend on “real doctoring” vs. other activities?

What really matters is whether we’ve ended up with too much work that isn’t “real doctoring.” Sure, all of the work needs to be done, but the system isn’t served best when paying a doctor to do work a less expensive person could do.

Max “Doctoring” Time

I think most hospitalists, including me, are stuck spending too much time on activities that don’t add value. For example, while complete and informative documentation is essential, most of us probably spend too much time on it, in part because we’re trying to immunize against lawsuits and ensure our documentation matches the relevant coding regulations.

I think hospitalists have a communication burden that is higher than that of most other specialties. The JHM article by Tipping and colleagues notes that a time-motion study of ED doctors (Ann Emerg Med. 1998:31(1):87-91) found that they spent 13% of their time communicating with other providers and staff, compared with their finding that hospitalists spent 26% of their time communicating.2 Only a portion of this communication is real doctoring. Discussing patient management with a surgeon is, but spending 20 minutes figuring out which surgeon is on call and how to reach her isn’t.

Tipping’s study also found that when patient census was above average, hospitalists spent less time communicating and documenting in the electronic record, even though the total time spent working on those days increased. Of course, it is possible that when the patient census is below average, we just work more slowly and let work fill the time available, and the reduced time spent documenting and communicating when busy simply reflects working more efficiently. But I suspect that when our patient census climbs above a certain point, or we’re made less efficient by things like implementing a new technology, we compensate in part by relying on consultants more to do the real doctoring we would otherwise be doing and communicating with them less.

All of us should be thinking about ways to make communication as efficient as possible so that we can spend less time doing it. I’m hopeful that we will figure out new ways to communicate (e-mail, text, IM, etc.) that are quicker and just as effective in certain situations.


I try to write most of my columns in a way that minimizes the editorializing and maximizes the practical advice. This month is an exception; it’s all editorializing. But I do have some advice for Dr. Williams: Investigate music options other than the arena bands of the 1980s. Try something like Alison Krauss’ live album or Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi, which has the beautiful aria O mio babbino caro.

Or do what I do: Ask former SHM board member Brad Flansbaum, MD, SFHM, for advice. TH

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988 and is co-founder and past president of SHM. He is a principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants, a national hospitalist practice management consulting firm ( He is course co-director and faculty for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program.” This column represents his views and is not intended to reflect an official position of SHM.


  1. O’Leary KJ, Liebovitz DM, Baker DW. How hospitalists spend their time: insights on efficiency and safety. J Hosp Med. 2006;1(2):88-93.
  2. Tipping MD, Forth VE, O’Leary KJ, et al. Where did the day go? A time-motion study of hospitalists. J Hosp Med. 2010;5(6):323-328.

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