“Forty percent of physicians reported that their typical inpatient census exceeded safe levels at least monthly.”1
This quote is taken from an article by Henry Michtalik and colleagues that appeared at the end of January this year in JAMA Internal Medicine. In 2010 the authors conducted an on-line survey asking hospitalists their perceptions of their workload. Respondents indicated that with concerning frequency a high workload prevented them from adequately discussing with patients treatment options or answering questions, delay admitting or discharging patients until the next day or shift, or in some other way risk patient safety or the overall quality of their work.
This alarming finding matches my anecdotal experience working with many different hospitalist groups around the country. I think few hospitalists were surprised by the survey’s findings. Excess hospitalist workloads are indeed a problem in some settings, and those who bear them are typically not shy about speaking out.
The demand for hospitalists has exceeded the supply of doctors available to do the work throughout the history of the field. Under the weight of stunningly rapid growth in referral volume, from about 1995 to 2002, it was reasonably common for the original doctors in a hospitalist practice to become overwhelmed and leave for other work after a year or two, sometimes resulting in the collapse of the practice. Most practices are no longer in such a rapid-growth phase, but for many of them, staffing has not yet caught up with workload. The result can be chronic excess work, and even if daily patient volume is not seen as being unsafe, the number of days or shifts worked might be excessive and lead to fatigue and poor performance.
Other Workload Data
The respondents to the Michtalik survey reported that regardless of any assistance, “they could safely see 15 patients per shift, if their effort was 100% clinical.” What we don’t know is how long their shifts were, whether they included things like ICU coverage, and how many shifts they work consecutively or in a year.
SHM’s 2012 State of Hospital Medicine report, which is based on 2011 data, provides additional context. It shows that hospitalists serving adult patients report a median 2,092 billed encounters annually (mean 2,245, standard deviation 1,161). They spread this work over a median 185 shifts (“work periods”) annually (mean 192). While there are lots of methodological problems in manipulating those numbers further, 2,092 encounters divided by 185 shifts yields 11.3 encounters per shift. These numbers exclude academicians who typically spend significant time in activities other than direct patient care, and I’m intentionally ignoring such issues as the night-shift doctor, who typically has low productivity, bringing down the average per full-time doctor in a practice.
The numbers from both surveys are sort of fuzzy because they aren’t audited or verified, but the 2012 State of Hospital Medicine data suggest that typical workloads aren’t too high in most practices, yet 40% of respondents in the Michtalik survey said they were high enough—unreasonably high—to risk quality and safety at least once a month.
One way to reconcile these findings is to take into account the standard deviation in daily volume in a single practice of about 30% to 40% on above or below the mean. If a hospitalist averages 14 encounters each day shift, then he should expect that the daily number might vary between about eight and 20. The Michtalik survey responses were likely reflecting the shifts on the high end.
I wonder what a survey of physician workload opinions in other specialties would show, or what a survey of workers across all segments of the U.S. workforce in and out of healthcare would show. Of course, many or most jobs outside of healthcare don’t risk another’s health or well-being as significantly as ours do, but it would still be instructive to know how people in general think about the work they do.
I suspect a significant number of people across many different jobs feel like too much work is expected of them, and they can point to the ways their performance suffers as a result. It is difficult to know what portion of those who report too much work is just complaining versus a thoughtful self-reflection of the determinants of their performance. Lots of hospitalists do face worrisome high workloads, but some would probably still complain even with a much lower workload.
What Can Be Done?
For those practices facing remarkably high patient volumes, the solution is to make sure you’re recruiting additional doctors, and/or NPs/PAs, as fast as you can. But a portion of these practices must first convince their employers that more staff is needed. Some practices face a real uphill battle in getting the required additional funding, and the place to start is with a careful analysis of your current workload—based on hard numbers from your practice, not just anecdotes and estimates.
Don’t forget that some hospitalists put themselves in the position of having to manage high daily patient volumes by choosing a schedule of relatively few worked days annually. For example, a group working a seven-on/seven-off schedule that also has 14 shifts of time off means that each doctor will work only 168.5 shifts annually. Compressing a year’s worth of work into only 168 shifts means that each shift will be busy, and many will involve patient volumes that exceed what is seen as safe.
It could make more sense to titrate that same work volume over more annual shifts so that the average shift is less busy. I would love to see the Michtalik data segregated by those who work many shifts annually versus those who work few shifts. It is possible that those working more shifts have reported excessive workloads less often.
SHM has a role in influencing hospitalist workloads and promotes dissemination of data and opinions about it. At HM13 next month in Washington, D.C., I am leading a session titled “Hospitalist Workload: Is 15 the Right Number?” Although it won’t provide the “right” workload for all hospitalists, it will offer worthwhile data and food for thought.
It is much more difficult to do studies of how workload influences performance than something like effects of sleep deprivation on performance, so we may never get clear answers. You could take some consolation in the fact that successive surveys have shown little change or even modest decreases in annual patient encounters. But then again, maybe that hasn’t helped with excess work since providing hospital care gets harder and more complex every year.
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 co-director for SHM's "Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program" course. Write to him at email@example.com.