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 protected].