Unpredictable workloads and frequent interruptions are the things I regard as the most stressful components of work as a hospitalist. Your list might be very different, but I bet unpredictable workloads ranks at least in the top five of every hospitalist’s list.
I’ve discussed interruptions previously (see “Really, It’s Switch-Tasking,” p. 68, November 2008; “Technological Advance or Workplace Setback?” p. 69, December 2008), but this month and next will turn to unpredictable workloads. In other words, what are the strategies available to a hospitalist practice to provide surge capacity in response to such unpredictable increases in patient volume as an uptick in census or daily admissions 50% to 100% above normal? I’ll leave to others the topic of how hospitals respond to such disasters as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, etc.
The Bottom Line
Sadly, there is no magic bullet for the “surge” problem, and no way to protect on-duty hospitalists from the need to work harder when it gets busy. But we needn’t feel too sorry for ourselves; doctors in most other specialties who practice in the hospital face the same problem and tend to rely heavily on simply working harder and longer when it is unusually busy. Sometimes they couple the “work harder” mantra with other strategies, such as calling another doctor in to help.
Hospitalists have a duty to ensure high patient volume doesn’t lead to deterioration in the quality of patient care, but occasionally working longer days than average probably poses a low risk, and might be less risky than the additional handoffs usually associated with having a doctor on “jeopardy” to be called in when it’s busy. Routinely or frequently working unreasonably long days is another story.
The trick for HM programs is to build some surge capacity into the routine daily staffing 1) without exceeding a reasonable budget, while 2) ensuring that the hospitalists don’t simply become accustomed to light workloads as the only reasonable norm, which could lead to them becoming unwilling to accept higher, but still reasonable, workloads when needed. (More on these issues later.) First, I’ll go through what I see as the pros and cons of several approaches to addressing surges in patient volume. All are in use with variable frequency around the country.
In its most common form, a jeopardy system has an unscheduled doctor each day who must remain available on short notice by pager. When patient volume surges, the unscheduled doctor is paged to come in and help. In most cases, this doctor focuses primarily—or exclusively—on admitting patients for a few hours. So it is most common for this doctor to be called in late in the afternoon or early in the evening. The jeopardy doctor usually turns over all admitted patients to another hospitalist in the group for all subsequent care. In addition to providing surge capacity, the jeopardy doctor almost always is used to cover unexpected absences of scheduled doctors, including illness-related absences.
Sometimes this doctor is paid extra for each day or week spent being “available” on jeopardy duty (not to be confused with jury duty, though it can be equally difficult to get exempted from). Then again, it is not uncommon to have jeopardy duty included in base compensation. However, once a jeopardy doctor is actually called in to work, most practices pay additional compensation, often based on an hourly rate that usually is higher than the average compensation generated per hour for nonjeopardy work.