Patient Care

Multiple Approaches to Combat High Hospital Patient Census


Dr. Hospitalist

In this age of cost containment and fiscal frugality, how do you handle high-census periods without jeopardizing patient care?

–Michael P. Mason, Tulsa, Okla.

Dr. Hospitalist responds:

Your group must first define the term “high census,” because workload is based on many factors. Seeing 20 patients a day in a large inner-city hospital is much different from seeing 20 patients in a suburban hospital in an affluent part of town. Also, seeing 20 patients geographically located on the same floor is much easier than 20 patients spread all over the hospital. Mid-level or nurse case-management support also makes a difference.

Once defined, there are many different ways to handle the high census; each hospitalist group must decide what works for them.

Many groups rely on their compensation structure to entice their physicians to see higher numbers of patients. The pay structure may be production-based and entice many of the group members to see more patients. Typically, for the member that does not want to see the large volumes, there are usually colleagues who are more than happy to cover the excess patients.

Some groups employ a hybrid system, with their compensation based on production and salary. Generally, bonuses or incentives are applied after meeting a specific relative value unit (RVU) threshold. These thresholds vary and usually are raised periodically based on the percentage of staff able to collect. Again, some group members may volunteer to see the excess patients for higher compensation. It is up to the group to develop mechanisms to measure the quality of care of these high producers and monitor for burnout.

Then there are groups that have no volume incentives and everyone is paid a salary. Many groups that utilize any of these compensation models have group members “on call” to come in when needed and see the excess patients. Many pay the on-call person some nominal amount just for being on call, or a per-patient or hourly rate if they have to come in. Others make it a mandatory part of the schedule without any additional compensation.

Many groups have integrated advanced-practice providers (nurse practitioners and physician assistants) into their systems. They can help hospitalists improve efficiency by seeing patients that are less ill or awaiting placement, or by performing such labor-intensive tasks as admissions and discharges.

HM groups should collaborate with the hospital’s chief financial officer. Like clinicians, most administrators recognize it is very difficult to deliver high-quality and efficient care when the numbers get high. It is in their best interest to help devise strategies and models that deliver quality care and the metrics needed to sustain support.

HM has become such a large specialty that there is no-one-size-fits-all solution to high censuses. In the end, you have to be comfortable with the system created by your group, work to help improve it, or seek a better fit.

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