Practice Economics

Surge Protection


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.

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.

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.

“Jeopardy” System

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.

There are a number of reasonable ways to compensate the jeopardy doctor. You probably can get some good ideas by talking with others in your hospital who function in a similar capacity, such as cath-lab technicians who get called in on nights and weekends.

No definitive data are available to show how common the jeopardy system is, but my experience is that 30% to 50% of HM groups use some form of it. Its popularity is proof that it is a reasonable system, but I’m not convinced. I think it is in use by a lot of groups not because it is an optimal way to ensure surge capacity, but because it is easy to conceptualize and put in place, and because many hospitalists came from residency programs in which the system was standard.

The gaps between theoretical and realized benefits become evident once a practice implements a jeopardy system. For example, it might be really busy today, but Dr. Stravinsky doesn’t call in Dr. Copeland, who is on jeopardy, because next week their roles will be reversed and Dr. Stravinsky sure hopes he won’t be called in. No one wants to be the weak doctor who calls in the jeopardy doctor and spoils what was otherwise a day off.

I’ve worked with a lot of practices who say they have a jeopardy system in place, but when I ask for the last time the jeopardy doctor was called in, they say it has been more than a year, or in some cases never. So even if the policy manual says they have a jeopardy system, the doctors never activate it, so it provides no benefit.

Practices that do utilize the jeopardy doctor have their own problems, such as assigning that doctor’s admissions the next day. The jeopardy doctor might provide some relief today, but they essentially just delay the work of having to get to know all of those new patients until the morning, when everyone is very busy with rounds. So while there might be significant benefit in activating the jeopardy system today, it could just delay the problem of high workload until the next morning, which isn’t much of a net benefit for the practice.

A small number of practices call in the jeopardy doctor frequently, and sometimes have that doctor continue to round on admitted patients for the next few days. This usage might get the most value out of the system, but the practice should consider if it is more cost-effective, and less stressful for the doctors, if the system were reversed. For example, instead of having the doctor on jeopardy and called in as necessary, the doctor would report to work and be given the day off or let go early when it isn’t busy.

Despite my reservations, if you are convinced the jeopardy system is valuable and cost-effective, keep it in place. However, if your group is thinking about options to handle surge capacity, don’t be too quick to adopt a jeopardy system. It usually falls far short of a perfect solution.

Patient Volume Cap

Another way to address the problem of unpredictable increases in patient volume is to establish a patient volume (e.g., total census) cap for the whole hospitalist practice. Like the jeopardy system, this is an appealingly uncomplicated idea, and hospitalists who have finished residency within the last few years all worked with a cap.

Except for the rarest of exceptions, this is a poor idea and should be avoided if at all possible. I’ll leave for another time a discussion of all the political and financial costs of a cap system, but trust me on this one. It is best to avoid a cap.

Stay Tuned …

Next month, I’ll examine other strategies to provide surge capacity. I think they’re more valuable than the two I’ve mentioned here, but I need to warn you that they aren’t perfect and are more complicated to operationalize. 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 (www.nelson He is course co-director 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.

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