How is hospitalist practice evolving?
In addition to payment and productivity data, the SoHM report provides a current picture of the evolving state of hospitalist group practices. A key thread is how the work hospitalists are doing, and the way they do it, is changing, with new information about comanagement roles, dedicated admitters, night coverage, geographic rounding, and the like.
Making greater use of nurse practitioners and physician assistants (NPs/PAs), may be one way to change the flat productivity trends, Dr. Brown said. With a cost per RVU that’s roughly half that of a doctor’s, NPs/PAs could contribute to the bottom line. But he sees surprisingly large variation in how hospitalist groups are using them. Typically, they are deployed at a ratio of four doctors to one NP/PA, but that ratio could be two to one or even one to one, he said.
Use of NPs/PAs by academic hospitalist groups is up, from 52.1% in 2016 to 75.7% in 2018. For adult-only groups, 76.8% had NPs/PAs, with higher rates in hospitals and health systems and lower rates in the West region. But a lot of groups are using these practitioners for nonproductive work, and some are failing to generate any billing income, Dr. Brown said.
“The rate at which NPs/PAs performed billable services was higher in physician-owned practices, resulting in a lower cost per RVU, suggesting that many practices may be underutilizing their NPs/PAs or not sharing the work.” Not every NP or PA wants to or is able to care for very complex patients, Dr. Brown said, “but you want a system where the NP and PA can work at the highest level permitted by state law.”
The predominant scheduling model of hospital medicine, 7 days on duty followed by 7 days off, has diminished somewhat in recent years. There appears to be some fluctuation and a gradual move away from 7 on/7 off toward some kind of variable approach, since the former may not be physically sustainable for the doctor over the long haul, Dr. Brown said. Some groups are experimenting with a combined approach.
“I think balancing workload with manpower has always been a challenge for our field. Maybe we should be working shorter shifts or fewer days and making sure our hospitalists aren’t ever sitting around idle,” he said. “And could we come in on nonclinical days to do administrative tasks? I think the solution is out there, but we haven’t created the algorithms to define that yet. If you could somehow use the data for volume, number of beds, nurse staffing, etc., by year and seasonally, you might be able to reliably predict census. This is about applying data hospitals already have in their electronic health records, but utilizing the data in ways that are more helpful.”
Dr. McIlraith added that a big driver of the future of hospital medicine will be the evolution of the EHR and the digitalization of health care, as hospitals learn how to leverage more of what’s in their EHRs. “The impact will grow for hospitalists through the creation and maturation of big data systems – and the learning that can be extracted from what’s contained in the electronic health record.”
Another important question for hospitalist groups is their model of backup scheduling, to make sure there is a replacement available if a scheduled doctor calls in sick or if demand is unexpectedly high.
“In today’s world, this is how we have traditionally managed unpredictability,” Dr. Brown said. “You don’t know when you will need it, but if you need it, you want it immediately. So how do you pay for it – only when the doctor comes in, or also an amount just for being on call?” Some groups pay for both, he said, others for neither.
“We are a group of 70 hospitalists, and if someone is sick you can’t just shut down the service,” said Dr. Chadha. “We are one of the few to use incentives for both, which could include a 1-week decrease in clinical shifts in exchange for 2 weeks of backup. We have times with 25% usage of backup number 1, and 10% usage of backup number 2,” he noted. “But the goal is for our hospitalists to have assurances that there is a backup system and that it works.”
The presence of nocturnists in hospitals continues to rise, with 76.1% of adults-only groups having nocturnists, 27.6% of children-only groups, and 68.2% of adults and children groups. Geographic or unit-based hospital assignments have grown to 36.4% of adult-only groups.