Battling hospitalist burnout

Higher salaries are not sufficient


Hospitalist Rahul C. Borsadia, MD, had been working with Orlando Health Inpatient Medicine Group since the year of its founding in 2011.

The salaries of the practice’s physicians back then were based on relative value units (RVU) – the more patients that physicians saw, the higher their salaries. But a problem arose, Dr. Borsadia said. Physicians were trying to squeeze in two dozen or more patients a day “in a practice that is modeled for quality.”

“By the time the end of the day comes, it’s 9 or 10 p.m. and you are leaving but coming back at 6:30 the next morning. So, lack of sleep, more patients, striving to earn that higher salary,” he said. “The desire to perform quality work with that kind of patient load was not fulfilled and that lead to dissatisfaction and stress, which lead to irritation and exodus from the group.”

Three years ago, the practice transitioned to a throughput process with a census limit of 18 patients or less, without an RVU system, but with salary incentives based on patient satisfaction, billing, and documentation.

“We’ve not had anybody leave the hospital because of burnout or dissatisfaction” since the new system was put into place, Dr. Borsadia said. “Less burnout means more people are happy.”

Although symptoms of burnout still seem to be rampant across hospital medicine, hospitalists are putting potential solutions into place. And – sometimes – they are making progress, through tweaks in schedules and responsibilities, incentives suited to different goals, and better communication.

Scheduling problems

The need for continuing efforts to improve the work experience for hospitalists is apparent, said Henry Michtalik, MD, MPH, MHS, assistant professor of general internal medicine at Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, who led a workshop on the topic at the 2019 Annual Conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine (HM19).

Henry Michtalik, MD, MPH, MHS, assistant professor of general internal medicine at Johns Hopkins, Baltimore

Dr. Henry Michtalik

A 2016 survey of academic general internal medicine clinicians – including about 600 hospitalists and outpatient physicians – found that 67% reported high stress, 38% said they were “burned out,” 50% said they felt they had “low control” over their work, and 60% said they felt high documentation pressures. Still, 68% said they were satisfied with the values of their departments.

Hospitalists surveyed were actually less likely to say they were burned out, compared with outpatient internists – 52%, compared with 55% – but they were more likely to score low on a scale measuring personal accomplishments, compared with the outpatient clinicians – 20% to 10%. The survey found no significant difference between the two groups in depression or suicidality. But with 40% reporting depression and 10% reporting thoughts of suicide, the numbers virtually cry out for solutions.

Hospitalists in the HM19 workshop, as in other sessions at the Annual Conference, questioned whether the standard 7-days-on, 7-days-off work schedule – seven 12-hour shifts followed by 7 days off – allows hospitalists to pair their works lives with their personal lives in a sustainable way. They described the way that the stress and fatigue of such an intense work period bleeds into the days off that follow after it.

“By the end of seven 12’s, they’re bleary eyed, they’re upset, they go home (for) 2 days of washout before they even start to enjoy whatever life they have left,” said Jonathan Martin, MD, director of medicine at Cumberland Medical Center in Crossville, Tenn. “It’s hard to get hospitalists to buy in, which increases their dissatisfaction.”

Dr. Michtalik had a similar perspective.

“You just shut the rest of your life down completely for those 7 days and then, on your 7 days off, you’ve scheduled your life,” he said. “But that last off day – day number 7 – you feel that pit in your stomach, that the streak is coming.” He joked that the feeling was similar to the dread inspired by the phrase “winter is coming” in the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

Systematic reviews of the literature have found that it’s mostly changes at the organization level – rather than changes that an individual physician makes on his or her own – that tend to make significant differences. Changes to structure, communication, and scheduling tend to work better than working on mindfulness, education, or trying to improve resilience, Dr. Michtalik said.

In one study discussed at the HM19 workshop, researchers compared a schedule in which an intensivist works in-house for 7 days, with home call at night, to a schedule in which the intensivist is completely off at night, with an in-house intensivist covering the night shift. The schedule in which the intensivist was truly off for the night significantly reduced reports of burnout, while not affecting length of stay or patient-experience outcomes.

Dr. Michtalik said that another study compared 4-week rotations to 2-week rotations for attending physicians. Researchers found that the 2-week version resulted in lower reports of burnout, with readmissions and patient experience unaffected, although they noted that residents tended to prefer 4-week schedules because they felt it resulted in better relationships with the attending physician.

Perhaps the dominant factor in job satisfaction that’s been identified in surveys is how physicians, patients, and administrators relate to one another, Dr. Michtalik said.

“The important concept here is that relationships were really important in driving job satisfaction, whether that be with our colleagues, our patients, or with the staff that you’re working with,” he said. “It’s always easier to decline a consultation or have a bad interaction with someone over the phone than it is if you actually know them or you are communicating face to face. That’s why it’s important to develop these kinds of relationships, which also put a face to what’s going on.”


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