—Jeff Taylor, president, chief operating officer, IPC: The Hospitalist Co., North Hollywood, Calif.
Robert Houser, MD, MBA, co-medical director of Rapid City Regional Hospital in Rapid City, S.D., left his primary-care practice a little more than 10 years ago to become a hospitalist. At the time, his new schedule—working seven days in a row, then taking off seven days in a row—struck him as odd. But the idea of being able to throw himself completely and alternately into both his job and his family appealed to him. More than a decade later, he still believes his schedule is a perfect mix of personal and professional time.
Bradley Eshbaugh, MBA, FACMPE, chief administrator of Hospitalists of Northern Michigan (HNM) in Traverse City, Mich., and a SHM Administrators’ Committee member, doesn’t see it that way. His hospitalists tell him the work-a-week, skip-a-week schedule is too inflexible for the work-life balance they crave. Even when newly hired physicians accustomed to the week-on/week-off schedule ask if they can continue it, Eshbaugh says, most quickly realize the flexible-schedule option that HNM utilizes offers them a more balanced approach to time off work.
Welcome to the world of seven-on/seven-off scheduling, where detractors and supporters often have the same reasons for their differing viewpoints. Those who favor the model say that its simple-to-implement block approach to scheduling allows physicians to know far in advance when their time off is. That allows clinicians to plan their lives way in advance, a carrot hospitalist groups have used for more than a decade to attract new hires. Those who prefer other scheduling methods say the seven-on/seven-off model’s rigidity leaves little flexibility to deal with the unscheduled inevitabilities of life (sickness, personal time, maternity leave, resignations, etc.) and is not the best construct to match staffing to the busiest admissions periods.
And while everyone agrees that the seven-on/seven-off model is among the most popular, there is as yet no clinical data that show whether its practitioners are more or less likely to provide higher-quality care. So the oft-asked question of whether the schedule is sustainable comes down not to care delivery but financial pressure. Three-quarters of HM groups (HMGs) rely on their host hospitals for financial support, and that support-per-FTE at nonacademic groups serving only adults rose to an median of $140,204 this year, according to SHM’s 2012 State of Hospital Medicine report—a 40% increase over data in the 2010 SHM/MGMA‐ACMPE survey.
“When we started in this business 15 years ago, the average hospital might have three to five hospitalists, maybe a subsidy of $300,000 to $500,000,” says Martin Buser, a partner in Hospitalist Management Resources of Del Mar, Calif. “That same program today is probably running 15 to 20 hospitalists, a subsidy of $3 million-plus. It’s really strongly on the radar screen for administrators to look at, ‘Can I keep affording this, or do I need to find less expensive ways to get the same result?’”
The origins of the seven-on/seven-off schedule are a bit murky. Some believe it was borrowed from the shift-work model in the ED. Others think it has roots in the nursing ranks. Still others think that in the nascent days of HM, two- and three-physician groups developed the schedule by simply splitting monthly schedules by weeks. Regardless of pedigree, the model has grown to be just about the most common schedule for HMGs serving adults only. The State of Hospital Medicine report reported that 41.9% of adult groups use the seven-on/seven-off schedule, with 41.6% reporting their schedule as “variable” and “other.”
SHM has never queried hospitalists specifically about their schedules before, so no comparative data are available for information. Interestingly, the State of Hospital Medicine report found that hospitalist management companies and private HM groups were less likely to use the seven-on/seven-off schedule than hospital-owned or academic groups.
Jeff Taylor, president and chief operating officer of IPC: The Hospitalist Co., a national physician group practice based in North Hollywood, Calif., says just 10% of his 1,400 providers nationwide uses the seven-on/seven-off construct. He argues the model “is economically inefficient.” For example, he says, take a hospital with a census of around 60 inpatients per day. An HM group that wants to limit daily censuses to about 15 patients would need four doctors to staff that patient load. Using the seven-on/seven-off schedule, the group would need eight dayside hospitalists (not counting nocturnists). In a more traditional staffing model of a five-day workweek and call coverage, a group likely could handle the same workload with five FTE hospitalists, Taylor says.
“We have been doing some education with hospitals over the last three or four years of just doing the math,” he adds. “How many doctors would you need to staff this census? … We often give a dual proposal. This is how much it will cost for seven-on/seven-off; this is how much it will cost with the Monday-through-Friday model. Obviously, the Monday-through-Friday model is a lower cost, but it may take a little bit longer to get it staffed.”
Staffing difficulties—particularly recruitment and retention—are a major driver of the popularity of the seven-on/seven-off schedule, says Gregory Martinek, DO, FHM, medical director of Lexington Hospitalists in Altoona, Pa. He says it’s tough to recruit hospitalists to work in a small town in central Pennsylvania, so offering a schedule those physicians want to work is helpful.
In fact, Dr. Martinek offers his hospitalists an extra week of vacation in addition to the 26 weeks they don’t work. That allows some of his foreign-born physicians to take a three-week break from work, which many use as a chance to return to their birth countries.
“We had trouble recruiting when we had a different model,” Dr. Martinek says. “This has really worked for us. It’s allowed us to recruit.”
How do HM group leaders answer C-suite questions about whether the expenses associated with the seven-on/seven-off model are worth it? The short answer is data. Know basic metrics on length of stay, cost of care, etc., before having that conversation. For example, a traditional 40-hour workweek is 2,080 hours per annum (and probably less with vacation time). And while some might think that 26 weeks off a year equates to fewer hours, 26 weeks of 12-hour shifts totals 2,184 hours.
Per Danielsson, MD, medical director of Swedish Hospital Medicine in Seattle, says his group uses a hybrid seven-on/seven-off schedule that has demonstrated that their cost-of-care delivery is consistently $1,000 to $1,500 less per case than other physicians’ cases at Swedish Medical Center—and those other physicians often take care of patients with the same diagnoses.
—Kristi Gylten, MBA, director, hospitalist services, Rapid City (S.D.) Regional Hospital, SHM Administrators’ Committee member
“When you have those kinds of numbers, and you’re doing 7,000 admissions per year, the numbers add up quickly,” Dr. Danielsson says.
Kristi Gylten, MBA, director of hospitalist services at Rapid City Regional Hospital and a member of SHM’s Administrators’ Committee, says hospitalist group leaders should urge their administrations to look at more than just financial statements when judging the value of an HM group, particularly in rural areas.
“Our program started with three physicians in 2004 and has grown to over 30 in 2012,” she says. “There has been such great value brought to our community and our medical staff and our patients, just over and above what the bottom line would show on a monthly operational statement, that we don’t have the bean-counters knocking on our door.”
IPC’s Taylor says a complicating factor in moving away from the seven-on/seven-off format is the passion physicians have for their schedules. Or, to use his words: “You make major changes to schedules at great peril.”
John Frehse, managing partner of Core Practice, a Chicago consultancy that designs and implements labor strategies for shift-work operations, says that managers and administrators looking to change schedules often shy away from the upheaval.
“This emotional and potentially disruptive environment is something that makes them say, ‘We’re getting away with it now, so let’s not change it. Why rock the boat?’” Frehse explains. “They should be saying, ‘What is the methodology to get this out of here and put in something that’s financially responsible for the organization?’”
Ten years ago, Dr. Houser found the seven-on/seven-off schedule “a little bit unusual.” Now, his workweek of seven 10-hour days in a row seems natural. Even so, he understands those who voice concerns about hospitalized patients who would not be happy to know their hospitalist was on his 60th, 70th, or 80th hour of work that week.
“The physician’s side of me stays in a mode where I know I have to be a resource to the patient and I have to be a resource to my colleagues, and so I don’t think terms of being mentally drained,” he says. “Whether I’m starting or finishing, I just want to be as fresh as I can to approach those problems and mentally stay in the game that way. If I start thinking about being fatigued or tired, I feel like I won’t be able to provide the type of care that I can for that patient.”
Some groups using the seven-on/seven-off model allow physicians to leave the hospital at slow times while requiring they be on call. That allows hospitalists to recharge a bit midweek while ensuring that there is enough staff to provide coverage. Dr. Martinek says there’s no need to “hold them in the hospital if there is no work to do.” Daytime hospitalists also split admission to lighten the workload, he says.
Taylor says another practical concern for hospitalists working the seven-on/seven-off schedule is how engaged they can be with their institutions, particularly when they aren’t there half the year for committee meetings, staff gatherings—even water cooler conversation.
“I just have difficulty understanding how if half your workforce is gone every other week, how that group of doctors can become as integrated and ingrained and as part of the fabric of that facility as people who are there every week,” he says. “There are people who disagree with me on that, obviously.”
Richard Quinn is a freelance writer in New Jersey.