Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series.
My experience is that some, maybe even most, hospitalists tend to assume there is a standard or “right” way to organize things like work schedules, compensation, or even the assignment of patients among the group’s providers. Some will say things like “SHM says the best hospitalist schedule is …” or “The best way to compensate hospitalists is …”
But there really isn’t a “best” way to manage any particular attribute of a practice. Don’t make the mistake of assuming your method is best, or that it’s the way “everybody else does it.” Although scheduling and compensation are marquee issues for hospitalists, approaches to distributing new patients is much less visible. Many groups tend to assume their method is the only reasonable approach. The best approach, however, varies from one practice to the next. You should be open to hearing approaches to scheduling that are different from your own.
Assign Patients by “Load Leveling”
I’ve come across a lot—and I mean a lot—of different approaches to distributing new patients in HM groups around the country, but it seems pretty clear that the most common method is to undertake “load leveling” on a daily or ongoing basis.
For example, groups that have a separate night shift (the night doctor performs no daytime work the day before or the day after a night shift) typically distribute the night’s new patients with the intent of having each daytime doctor start with the same number of patients. The group might more heavily weight some patients, such as those in the ICU (e.g., each ICU patient counts as 1.5 or two non-ICU patients), but most groups don’t. Over the course of the day shift, new referrals will be distributed evenly among the doctors one at a time, sort of like dealing a deck of cards.
This approach aims to avoid significant imbalances in patient loads and has the potential cultural benefit of everyone sharing equally in busy and slow days. Groups that use it tend to see it as the best option because it is the fairest way to divide up the workload.
Practices that use load-leveling almost always use a schedule built on shifts of a predetermined and fixed duration. For example, say the day shift always works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. This schedule usually has the majority of compensation paid via a fixed annual salary or fixed shift rate. One potential problem with this approach is that the doctor who is efficient and discharges a lot of patients today is “rewarded” with more new patients tomorrow. Hospitalists who are allergic to work might have an incentive to have a patient wait until tomorrow to discharge to avoid having to assume the care of yet another patient tomorrow morning. Hospital executives who are focused on length-of-stay management might be concerned if they knew this was a potential issue. Of course, the reverse is true as well. In a practice that doesn’t aggressively undertake load-leveling, a less-than-admirable hospitalist could push patients to discharge earlier than optimal just to have one less patient the next day.
Another cost of this approach is that the distribution of patients can be time-consuming each morning. It also offers the opportunity for some in the group to decide they’re treated unfairly. For instance, you might hear the occasional “just last Tuesday, I started with 16 patients, compared with 15 for everyone else. Now you want me to do it again? You’re being unfair to me; it’s someone else’s turn to take the extra patient.”