Practice Economics

New Developments


HM11 and the publication of the SHM-MGMA survey on hospitalist productivity and compensation occur every summer, and they always provide lots of new information to get me thinking. Two things stand out this year: Hospitalist demand remains high, and hospitals are paying a lot to have hospitalist services.

Supply and Demand

Along with SHM President Joe Li and Rob Bessler, who is CEO of Sound Physicians, I had the pleasure of presenting a preview of some data from the latest SHM-MGMA survey at the annual meeting May 11 in Dallas. During the session, I asked the large crowd of hospitalists how many were from practices that are actively recruiting additional hospitalists. About 40% of the hands went up.

If 40% of HM groups are actively recruiting, some for more than one open position, that’s a lot of recruiting. But it is dramatically less than the response I got when I asked the same question just three years ago at HM08 in San Diego. At that meeting, nearly every hand in the room went up, indicating everybody was recruiting (see “We’re Hiring,” July 2008, p. 62).

Of course, my show-of-hands survey of attendees at SHM meetings is not a perfect method to assess hospitalist supply and demand. But I think the dramatic change in responses from 2008 to 2011 is meaningful; it also matches what I’m seeing in the marketplace. I hear repeatedly that the years of rapid growth in hospitalist staffing have ended in many or most major metropolitan areas. For example, in places like Seattle (where I practice), Minneapolis, and Boston, there are far fewer open positions now than just two years ago, and most are to replace a departing doctor rather than to increase the overall staffing level.

I think the average hospitalist today is pretty talented, but I also think it could get even better if the supply of hospitalists exceeds demand. I just hope I continue to make the cut!

But the far more numerous smaller markets are still recruiting aggressively in an effort to increase the overall staffing of the practice (and not just replace departing doctors). And changes in resident work-hour limitations are requiring teaching hospitals to increase hospitalist staffing to offset the reduction in resident availability. But it’s possible that if the larger markets are indeed becoming somewhat saturated with hospitalists, then there will be a trickledown effect, which should make more candidates available everywhere.

What will be the side effects if indeed the supply of hospitalists catches up to the demand, or even exceeds demand, in some places? It is easy to imagine that greater competition among candidates might mean that practices are increasingly able to hire the more talented and committed doctors, which should improve the overall performance of hospitalist practices.

Although I don’t have proof, I think this phenomenon has been in play in the field of emergency medicine for many years. When I was a resident in the 1980s, ED doctors typically were not the best and brightest at their hospitals. But the way I see it, the field began to attract better candidates, and as ED residencies and practices began to “fill up,” they could be more selective in new hires. Therefore, the average talent of the average ED doctor went up.

I think the average hospitalist today is pretty talented, but I also think it could get even better if the supply of hospitalists exceeds demand. I just hope I continue to make the cut!

If typical market forces are operative for hospitalists (far from a guarantee in any healthcare enterprise), then an oversupply of hospitalists could mean a flattening of the historical trend in hospitalist incomes. To this point, in our relatively young field, incomes have risen faster than can be explained solely by inflation or increases in hospitalist productivity. A relative shortage of hospitalists might be one of the main forces pushing incomes up, and it might go away.

We’ll see.

Hospital Support Trends Up

The most remarkable number in the 2011 SHM-MGMA survey is the financial support provided to practices per FTE hospitalist annually. This support nearly always comes from a hospital, and is often colloquially, and misleadingly, referred to as the “subsidy.”

In 2001, hospital support was about $65,000 per FTE. In the 2008 and 2010 surveys, the median financial support per FTE was $97,000 and $98,000, respectively. But it jumped to $136,403 this year. That is a really huge jump in one year. (Note: The surveys changed from biannual to annual in 2010, and the new SHM-MGMA survey uses a different financial support question/methodology and has a different respondent pool than the previous SHM surveys.)

Some of the increased dollars probably went to pay rising hospitalist compensation, which rose about 3% over the prior year without any significant increase in productivity. But that 3% salary increase translates to only about $5,000 (median compensation rose from roughly $215,000 to $220,000), and could be explained in part by such factors as removing academicians from this data set. (Starting in 2010, academic hospitalists are surveyed and reported separately, so aren’t included here.) So I don’t think the change in hospitalist incomes seen in this survey has much to do with the dramatic, near-40% increase in financial support.

The survey showed that hospitalist productivity hasn’t declined, so the other most likely culprit is declining professional fee collections, which might be due to an increasing portion of hospitalized patients who are uninsured or underinsured. Many hospitals report that their “payor mix” has worsened since the economic crisis of the last few years. And because hospitals typically hold the risk for the financial performance of their hospitalists, then if the latter see more uninsured patients and collect less in professional fees, the hospital will make up the difference. This phenomenon might explain much of the increased financial support.

But I’m not satisfied that a worsening payor mix explains everything. For example, if this were the most significant reason for increasing financial support, I think we would have seen this effect in the prior survey. Why did it “hit” so suddenly in this year alone?

We will get more information about collection rates when the second part of the survey is published in September. For example, we’ll be able to compare the dollars collected per encounter or per wRVU in the current survey to the prior one. If there was a significant drop, then it will require only a little math to see how much overall collections dropped per FTE and see if it is similar to the rise in financial support provided.

Of course, it will be very informative to see what the financial support turns out to be in the next survey (check back in late spring 2012). Will it stay around $136,000 per FTE or be something very different? 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 ( 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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