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.