Practice Economics

Nocturnists Vital For Hospitalist Group Continuity, Physician Retention


Beth Papetti

Having nocturnist coverage in your practice is a coveted position to be in for many hospital medicine providers. Rick Washington, MD, medical director for WellStar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Ga., says that “not only does it make it easier to recruit and retain daytime physicians when you have nocturnists as a part of your program, but they also serve a very valuable role in the continuity of the program throughout the nighttime hours, providing a stable admitting presence in the emergency department at all times.”

According to the 2012 State of Hospital Medicine Report, nearly half of all hospital medicine groups (HMGs) serving adults only incorporate nocturnists into their programs. Nocturnists are most common in HMGs employed by universities or medical schools (67%) and hospitals/integrated delivery systems (50%). The prevalence among management company-employed groups is much lower (25%), and no data was available for multispecialty groups or private hospitalist-only groups (see Figure 1).

As could be expected, the prevalence of nocturnists increases dramatically as the number of total FTEs of the practice increases. As the number of patients on a service, and thus the number of FTEs, grows, so does the expectation to provide on-site night coverage.

The percentage of compensation paid as base salary also has an impact; in general, the higher the percentage of compensation in base salary, the more likely that practice is to have nocturnists. Typically, night shifts tend to be less productive from a billable encounter perspective, so having a base rate of pay tends to be an essential factor in successfully maintaining nocturnists.

Prevalence of nocturnists in hospitalist practices click for large version

Beth Papetti

However, surprisingly, in the 63% of groups that reported paying a nocturnist differential, the clinicians earned only a median of 15% more in total compensation than their non-nocturnist counterparts. Perhaps this has to do with other factors that programs are utilizing in order to entice and retain nocturnists, which includes the possibility of doing fewer shifts or shorter shifts than their colleagues. In fact, 49% of respondent groups reported implementing a nocturnist schedule differential, most commonly in the range of one to 20% fewer shifts than non-nocturnist hospitalists in the same practice.

Other practices implement a schedule differential by shortening the length of nocturnist shifts, instead of reducing the number of shifts worked.

“For me, the key to doing this long term has been the ability to have an eight-hour shift rather than 12 hours,” says Dr. Nancy Maignan, who soon will celebrate five years as a nocturnist at WellStar Kennestone Hospital. “Another factor is flexibility with our schedule. We do not work 7-on/7-off. My schedule is dependent on my family’s schedule…this allows me to attend field trips and be off for most of their [her kids] school break.”

Although she points out that a supportive family is crucial, a supportive HMG is key. I would encourage groups thinking of implementing a nocturnist role to think carefully about how to make the job one that hospitalists can successfully do for a long time, rather than just trying to attract people to the role by making it financially lucrative.

Beth Papetti is assistant vice president of WellStar Medical Group in Marrietta, Ga. She is a member of SHM’s Practice Analysis Committee.

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