Practice Economics

The Laborist Movement


It is hard to think of medical hospitalists as the establishment, but with more than 30,000 hospitalists nationwide working at most U.S. hospitals, HM is a firm part of today’s medical practice. While, dare I say, “traditional” HM is still very much in its evolution, other specialties of HM have not only cropped up on the scene, but some also have developed enough of a presence to be worthy of drawing some early conclusions.

OB-GYN hospitalists, also known as laborists, now practice at more than 100 hospitals in more than 35 states, according to In many ways, the OB hospitalist movement is tracking the HM movement of 10 years ago. Although there are several similarities, there are more differences than just what the doctors do in their medical practices.

You can start a fully staffed group with just four OB hospitalists, each working a 24-hour shift every third day. Medical HM groups might start out with four hospitalists, but they quickly need to grow to 10, 15, or more as responsibilities for more unassigned patients, surgical comanagement, etc., require more hands on deck.

New “Partners” Drive Down Costs

HM has been driven as much by hospital payment by DRGs as anything else. As hospitals realized that hospitalists could better utilize resources and still maintain quality, the ability to reduce length of stay allowed hospitals to have the capital to support the early development of HM groups.

In obstetrics, the ability of laborists to reduce liability risks, and therefore malpractice premiums, for the hospital is a major driver of the recent growth in OB-GYN hospitalist groups. Some hospitals have been able to reduce the amount they must hold in reserve for future OB-related malpractice claims by more than $1 million after the first year of starting a laborist program. Additionally, hospitals’ annual malpractice premiums have dropped significantly.

Availability of on-site hospitalists has played a crucial role in this new delivery model for most of the hospitalist specialties. For hospitals with laborists, this has meant a significant decrease (for some, a total relief) in unattended deliveries, which in some hospitals was as high as 10% before the new breed of hospitalist arrived on the scene. This 24/7 obstetrician presence has reduced complications from many labor and delivery emergencies, and has led to improved patient safety and improved overall performance at the crucial moment of delivery. This is especially true for high-risk and emergency situations.

Just as in the rest of HM, the 24/7 availability has been complementary, not competitive, to community-based obstetricians: Unassigned patients now have someone to deliver their baby; community obstetricians have a hospital-based “partner” who is ready to fill any gaps in the community obstetricians’ presence in the hospital; and there is a ready assistant surgeon to those patients who require a C-section delivery.

Solution to the Insane Schedule?

The advent of laborists also has created some key professional options for established OB-GYN physicians, as well as for those just coming out of training. Some older obstetricians would stop delivering babies altogether, even though they enjoyed that part of their practice, because of the time demands on having to simultaneously deliver babies randomly in the middle of the night, then show up the next day for a full gynecology surgery schedule or office practice. Their only option seemed to be to concentrate on gynecology and shelve the obstetrics. Now, community obstetricians can partner with the laborists and still provide prenatal care and perform some deliveries, or they can leave their private OB-GYN practice altogether and become full-time OB hospitalists.

This point was driven home recently when a hospital in Oregon started an OB hospitalist group and needed only four hospitalists. The hospital received more than 40 applications, most from practicing obstetricians.

This points to another difference with laborists. You can start a fully staffed group with just four OB hospitalists, each working a 24-hour shift every third day. Medical HM groups might start out with four hospitalists, but they quickly need to grow to 10, 15, or more as responsibilities for more unassigned patients, surgical comanagement, etc., require more hands on deck.

The similarities between OB hospitalists and the rest of HM include the increased demand for accountability for patient safety and for meeting measureable performance standards, which are difficult to achieve while practicing both in the acute setting of the hospital and the more chronic setting of an office-based practice. In addition, there is a clear movement afoot for significant evolution in medical practice more broadly, where younger, and even established, physicians are looking for a more predictable lifestyle and compensation in a medical world that is clearly shifting to a new model.

Change Is All Around

In some specialties, predictability has led to the narrowing of practice by setting or subspecialty. For example, OB-GYNs are selecting to focus solely on gynecology, OB hospital medicine, or prenatal care. In general internal medicine, there are those who only do office-based medicine and those who are hospitalists. Some surgeons are now doing shifts as acute-care surgeons and limiting their practice to just inpatient care.

As much as a change in practice style, there is a resurgence of employment of physicians, either by medical groups, independent physician organizations, or hospitals. Even the strong, revenue-producing specialties like cardiology are seeing a new paradigm. Today, almost 60% of cardiologists are employed by some entity, and 38% of cardiologists are employed by the hospital.

As healthcare reform, payment reform, and new entities like accountable care organizations (ACOs) take shape, physician-provided medical care is moving from a cottage industry of individual and small group private practice to employment and amalgamation.

Join Team Hospitalist

Want to share your unique perspective on hot topics in HM? Team Hospitalist is accepting applications for two-year terms beginning in April. If you are interested in joining the team, e-mail Editor Jason Carris at [email protected].

Change is inevitable, and it is coming from a variety of viewpoints. Patients want better access to the best and safest care available. America’s businesses and the government, which fund healthcare, want predictable costs and measurable quality for the care they buy. Physicians want help in meeting new standards, predictable compensation for their work, and a lifestyle that meets their professional and personal aspirations.

The movement to the hospitalist model, first in the care of medical patients, and more recently for obstetrical, surgical, and other patients, is just one piece of a medical system in evolution. Stay tuned. We are still very much at the early stages of this course change. We all still have much work to do to create a future that works for our patients, our funders, and our providers of healthcare. TH

Dr. Wellikson is CEO of SHM.

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