Patient Care

John Nelson: Heavy Workloads


Now that HM is moving (or has moved?) from infancy to adolescence or even maturity, you might think that we would have reached some sort of consensus on what a reasonable workload—or patient volume—for a hospitalist is. My sense is that conventional wisdom says a reasonable average daily workload for a daytime rounding/admitting hospitalist is in the range of 12 to 17 billed encounters. And to average this volume, the doctor will have a number of days with more or fewer patients.

After thinking about average workload, the next question is: What is a reasonable upper limit for patient volume on a single day? Here, opinion seems to be a little fuzzier, but I think most would say a hospitalist should be expected to see more than 20 patients in a single day only on rare occasions and on, say, no more than 10 days annually. Keep in mind that a hospitalist who has 22 patients today still has a pretty good chance they will have 20 or more tomorrow, and the day after. High volumes are not a single-day phenomenon, either, because it usually takes a number of days for those patients to reach discharge—and the doctor to realize a decline in workload.

But these numbers are only conventional wisdom. There are little research data to guide our thinking about patient volumes, and thoughtful people sometimes arrive at very different conclusions. As I’ve written in this space previously, I think each individual hospitalist should have significant influence or autonomy to decide the appropriate or optimal patient volume for themselves or their group. This usually requires that doctors are connected to the economic and quality-of-care effects of their patient volume choices, something many hospitalists resist.

Divergence of Opinion

But given lots of autonomy, some hospitalists could make poor choices. I have had the experience of working with hospitalists in three practices around the country who are confident that, at least for themselves, very high patient volumes are safe and reasonable. These high-energy hospitalists see as many as 30 or 40 patients per day, day after day.

At one of these practices, I sat down with the doctors on duty that day at 1 p.m. and talked uninterrupted by pager or patient-care issues for nearly three hours. It was only at the end of the meeting that they explained each of them was seeing around 30 patients that day but had nearly finished rounds before our meeting started. I was stunned. (I probably wouldn’t stop for lunch, to say nothing of a three-hour meeting, to see just 20 patients in a day.)

So I asked just what they saw as an excessive daily patient volume. One of them seemed to deliberate carefully and said, “I probably need help when I have more than 35 patients to see in a day, but I’m OK with anything less than that.”

But the record goes to a really nice, spirited hospitalist who told me that, in addition to his usual workload, he occasionally covered weekends for an internal-medicine group. On a recent weekend, he had 88 patients to see each day, he said. Yes, you read that correctly: 88! (Fortunately, he did see that as a problem and was working to decrease the number.)

Potential Risks

I want to be clear that my own opinion is that the volumes above are unacceptable and dangerous. I think that, in most settings, routinely seeing more than 20 patients in a day probably degrades performance and increases the risk of burnout. While I think most knowledgeable people in our field share this opinion, none of us can point to compelling, generalizable research data to support our opinion.

The way I see it, excessively high workloads risk:

  • Adverse patient outcomes due to increased potential for clinical errors and accompanying poor documentation;
  • Failure of hospitalists to meet performance and citizenship expectations, such as length of stay (LOS), resource utilization, use of standardized order sets, attention to early discharge times, etc.;
  • Lack of any excess capacity to handle transient increases in workload;
  • Recruiting and/or retention challenges for hospitalists who might not want to work so hard;
  • High risk of hospitalist stress and burnout, which over time could negatively impact a person’s well-being, as well as their attitudes and interactions with other members of the patient care team;
  • Overdependence on a few very-hard-working doctors; if one doctor gets sick or has to stop working for a period of time, the hospital must find the equivalent of one-and-a-half doctors to replace him or her; and
  • Increased malpractice risk.

Limited Data

There is some research to guide the thinking about workload. I recall one or two abstracts presented at past SHM annual meetings in which doctors in a single practice showed that LOS increased when their patient volume was high. And some sharp hospitalist researchers at Christiana Care Health System in Wilmington, Del., conducted a more robust retrospective cohort study of thousands of non-ICU adult admissions to their 1,100-bed hospital over a three-year period. Their data, which they intend to publish, showed LOS rises as hospitalist workload increases.

Others have assessed the connection between workload and well-being or burnout. Surprisingly, it has been hard to document in the peer-reviewed literature that increasing workloads are associated with increased burnout. Studies of hospitalists published in 2001 and 2011 failed to show a connection between self-reported workload and burnout.1,2 A 2009 systemic review of literature on all physician specialties concluded that “an imbalance between expected and experienced … workload is moderately associated with dissatisfaction, but there is less evidence of a significant association with objective workload.”3 (Emphasis mine.)

Rather than workload, both of the hospitalist studies found that such attributes as organizational solidarity, climate, and fairness; the feeling of being valued by the whole healthcare team; personal time; and compensation were more tightly correlated with whether hospitalists would thrive than workload.

Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any robust studies showing the relationship between hospitalist workload and quality of care (please email me if you know of any). I think the burden of proof is on those who support high workloads to show they don’t adversely affect patient incomes.

If you’d like to discuss workload further, I’ll be moderating a session titled “Who Says 15 is the Right Number?” during HM13, May 17-19, 2013, in Washington, D.C. ( I hope to see you there.

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988. He is co-founder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is course co-director for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. Write to him at


1. Hoff TH, Whitcomb WF, Williams K, Nelson JR, Cheesman RA. Characteristics and work experiences of hospitalists in the United States. Arch Intern Med. 2001;161(6):851-858.

2. Hinami K, Whelan CT, Wolosin RJ, Miller JA, Wetterneck TB. Worklife and satisfaction of hospitalists: toward flourishing careers. J Gen Intern Med. 2012;27(1):28-36.

3. Scheurer D, McKean S, Miller J, Wetterneck T. U.S. physician satisfaction: a systematic review. J Hosp Med. 2009;4(9):560-568.

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