Practice Economics

Dr. Hospitalist


I have been asked to create a proposal for incentive-based reimbursements for our group. One of the more common areas cited in the literature is incentives for “good citizenship.” What exactly constitutes good citizenship and how is it tracked? Thanks.

Lou O’Boyle

5 SIMPLE Steps

to a Successful Incentive Based Compensation Plan

  1. Set clear rules so that everyone understands—and sticks to—them;
  2. Be as transparent as possible when gathering and displaying the data;
  3. Determine the appropriate motivator—not too much or too little a percentage of total compensation;
  4. Pay incentives frequently enough that participants associate the award with their behavior; and
  5. Give providers the tools to achieve success, and teach them how to succeed.

—Dr. H

Dr. Hospitalist responds:

Congratulations on your new responsibility! Most hospitalist programs in the U.S. have incentive-based compensation as part of their provider compensation plans. While some groups succeed with their incentive-based compensation plans, others fail at what the plan is intended to achieve. In addition to answering your question, I will discuss some keys to developing a successful plan.

From the nature of your question, it sounds as if you are a staff hospitalist or a group administrator who was tasked by the leader or the group to come up with the terms of an incentive-based plan. I am not aware of any guidelines on who is best suited to develop an incentive-based compensation plan, but, in general, I do think it is a mistake for group leaders to unilaterally mandate the terms the of the plan without input from its clinical providers. After all, it seems like common sense to speak with the people who you are trying to motivate before developing an incentive plan. Depending on the size of the group, I think most groups would do well to have a small, representative group of the frontline providers who would work with the leader to develop the plan.

First and foremost, the plan rules must be clear to all participants. Your question is an excellent example. “Good citizenship” probably means different things to different people. For some, it means attending all staff meetings, or active participation on hospital committees. For others, it represents high customer satisfaction or adherence to clinical guidelines. I am not aware of a universal definition for “good citizenship” when it comes to hospitalist incentive-based compensation plans.

After you have determined what you want your plan to motivate the staff to do, I urge you to define the plan rules as clearly as possible; write it down for all providers to see. If the plan rules are vague, opaque, or open to interpretation, participants might not be motivated to reach the goals, because they don’t really understand the plan rules. Even worse, participants might leave with the falsely held belief that someone is trying to mislead them.

Next, figure out a way to easily gather and display the data. Don’t underestimate the amount of work this involves. It is vitally important for everyone to understand who, when, where, and how the data will be gathered and displayed. Needless to say, the process of gathering and displaying the data must be done in a fashion that eliminates questions of validity.

At the core of any incentive-based compensation plan is the actual incentive. The process of determining the actual incentive can be fraught with controversy. I urge all working groups to proceed through this step with caution. What motivates people can vary widely. It is important for participants to view the incentives as sufficiently significant so that they are motivated to take the desired steps to achieve the goal. That said, if participants view the incentive as too large a component of total compensation, they might look for alternative employment with incentive plans they view as “safer” for their personal income.

Most incentive-based compensation plans are from 15% to 25% of total compensation. Again, this is not a fixed rule. Some groups choose incentives that are 5% to 10% of total compensation; others have incentives up to 40% of total compensation. The important takeaway here is to understand what is necessary to motivate your group.

Although most incentives are monetary, I encourage you to think beyond money as the only motivator in your plan. Some examples include time off from work; flat-screen televisions; or all-expenses-paid vacations.

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Whether you choose money or nonmonetary items, it is important to be clear on when the payout will occur. Many groups pay the incentive annually. It might be the easy way to do it, but it also doesn’t mean a once-a-year payout is right for your group. The goal of the incentive is to change provider behavior. In order to accomplish this goal, participants must associate their behavior with the incentive-based reward. Paying the incentive-based reward at the right frequency (quarterly, every six months) might increase the chance this will occur. I don’t advise weekly incentives; not only is that process cumbersome, but the rewards also are likely to be small and potentially ineffective. The frequency of payout should be part of the planning discussions.

My last piece of advice is to take steps to help your providers succeed. In addition to telling your providers how to reach their incentives, show them how to succeed. This does not mean setting the bar low. Providers should have to work hard to reach their goals, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t give them the tools to help them succeed. TH

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