Of course, if I were willing to reduce my compensation and average daily workload, then I would expect to be freed from the expectation that all rounding doctors work 12-hour shifts. Let’s turn our attention to the interplay between fixed day-shift durations and surge staffing.
Fixed-Shift Schedules Inhibit Surge Capacity
I think it usually is best to avoid fixed durations for day shifts. It might be necessary to require at least one daytime rounder to stay at least until a specified time (e.g. the arrival of the night-shift doctor), but in most cases it is reasonable for some rounders to leave when their work is done. They might need to continue responding to pages until the start of the night shift, but it usually isn’t necessary to have all rounders in the hospital until a predetermined end of the shift.
The problem is that when shifts have a fixed duration, the providers will focus on the start and stop time of their shift and might be unwilling to work beyond it. If instead there are no clearly fixed start and stop times for each day shift, then the hospitalists are likely to be willing to simply work longer on busy days, as long as they can work shorter on slow days. This is probably the most effective method of surge capacity, and it fits well with staffing each day with more providers than are required for the average patient volume.
Simply having the rounding doctors work longer on busy days must be done within reason. And there is a really wide range of opinion about what is reasonable. I think it is reasonable if a hospitalist works two or three hours longer than usual for three or four consecutive busy days, as long as the hospitalist is allowed to work less on days that are not very busy. But just what is a reasonable maximum daily amount of work for even one day is a topic that can lead to passionate debate. You’ll have to decide the details of what is and isn’t acceptable in your group.
Aside from fixed-duration day shifts, unit-based assignment of hospitalists is the most common practice inhibiting surge capacity. Not long ago I worked with a practice that followed very strict unit-based assignments, which significantly inhibited “load-leveling,” and thus surge capacity. On any given day the patient volume for the whole practice might be very reasonable, but because it was never distributed evenly among the rounders, there was a very good chance that at least one doctor was drowning in work. And because of the strict approach, the other doctors didn’t come to the rescue.
I think the only reasonable approach is to deviate from such a strict unit-based assignment, at least a little. One rounder could be a utility doctor who doesn’t have her own unit and instead roams throughout the hospital, having been assigned patients based on the workload of each of her unit-based colleagues. TH
Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988 and is cofounder and past president of SHM. He is a principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants (www.nelsonflores.com) and codirector and faculty for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. This column represents his views and is not intended to reflect an official position of SHM.