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How Do You Define A Hospitalist FTE?

A reader recently emailed me to ask: “How do you define a hospitalist FTE?” It turns out that it is a great question with a very nuanced answer. Twenty years ago, an FTE was whatever a physician wanted it to be. Physician earnings were directly tied to physician billing and so a physician would work as much as they wanted in order to generate the income that they wanted. But over the past 2 decades, revenue from physician professional services has not changed appreciably – in 2002, Medicare reimbursed physicians at $36.20 per RVU; in 2022, an RVU was worth $34.61.

To put that in perspective, $1.00 in 2002 is worth $1.66 in 2022 whereas an RVU is now worth $1.59 less than it was in 2002! In order to keep physician incomes constant, hospitals have had to increasingly subsidize physicians. As a result, most physicians are now hospital-employed, rather than independent practitioners. This is especially true for hospitalists who rarely, if ever, are able to support their full salary on billings alone. In the past, the physicians defined what working full-time constitutes but today, it is the hospitals that define what working full-time means for a hospitalist.

Hospitals typically subsidize hospitalist groups based on the number of FTEs (full-time equivalents) that are required in order to cover the hospital’s inpatients. But defining exactly what an FTE is can be complicated and often a source of disagreement between the hospital and the hospitalist group. There are a number of equally valid ways of defining “full-time” and no one definition works best in every hospital. There are several steps to determine the best model in your hospital.

Step 1: Determine the number of patients per hospitalist per day

The number of patients each hospitalist should see per day will vary considerably from hospital to hospital and from nursing unit to nursing unit. There are 19 factors to consider when determining this number as outlined in a previous post:

      • Case mix index
      • Residents versus no residents
      • Admitting service versus consultative service
      • Presence or absence of advance practice providers
      • ICU versus general ward patients
      • Day shift versus night shift
      • Observation status versus regular inpatient status
      • Ease of documentation
      • Shared electronic medical record with primary care physicians
      • Non-clinical duties
      • Shift duration (hours)
      • Hospitalist experience
      • Patient geographical location within the hospital
      • Average length of stay
      • Inpatient census variability
      • RVU productivity
      • Quality of case management
      • Local hospitalist employment market
      • Patient demographics

There has to be flexibility, however, and rigid adherence to a given number of patients is a recipe for dissatisfaction on both the part of the hospital and the part of the hospitalist. If the hospital inpatient census falls, then the hospital will be unhappy that each on-duty hospitalist is not seeing enough patients. On the other hand, if the inpatient census surges, then the hospitalists will be unhappy since they have to see more patients than they agreed on in their contracts. Many hospitals will have a “risk-call” hospitalist each day who is on standby to come in to work if needed when the inpatient census is higher than normal.

Step 2: Determine how the hospitalists will be scheduled

Early in the hospitalist era, scheduling was simple: a shift was 12 hours long and there were two shifts – a day shift and a night shift. Hospitalist schedules have gotten a lot more complex in recent years as outlined in a previous post. Now, hospitalists often have 8-hour short day shifts and evening swing shifts to cover ER admissions in the early evenings. As a result, scheduling hospitalists has become much more complex. Here are some of the scheduling models:

The 12-hour shift model. This was the original hospitalist scheduling model and typically will have two 12-hour shifts per day, a day shift and a night shift. The day shift is typically 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM or 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM. The night shift starts when the day shift is over. Day shifts and night shifts are treated equally but since night shifts are considered less desirable by most hospitalists, there needs to be a “shift differential” to provide extra payment for covering night shifts. Many hospitals will also provide additional pay for hospitalists who work on holidays. Because most patient care (work rounds, interdisciplinary rounds, daily charting, discharges, family meetings, etc.) occurs during the day shift, hospitals will typically have 1 night shift hospitalist for every 3 -4 day shift hospitalists. High acuity patient care areas, such as the intensive care unit, may require 1 night shift hospitalist for every 1 day shift hospitalist.

The long-shift, short-shift model. In this model, one or more hospitalists works the entire 12-hour day shift but other hospitalists leave earlier in the day, after their work is done. The short-shift hospitalists check out to one of the long-shift hospitalists when leaving. The long-shift hospitalist is then responsible for any admissions that come in later in the day. Some hospitalist groups will have the short-shift hospitalists continue to take phone calls from nurses, the lab, and consultants after they leave the hospital; other hospitalist groups will have the long-shift hospitalists cover calls. Some hospitals will have a specific check-out time for the short-shift hospitalists, for example, 3:00 PM. Other hospitals will have the short-shift hospitalists check out whenever their work is completed, whether that be 1:00 PM or 5:00 PM. An advantage of this model is that it avoids having a lot of hospitalists sitting around doing nothing in the late afternoon, after all of their work is done. In addition, this model is very attractive to hospitalists with children, since they can be home when the kids get out of school.

The swing-shift model. In most hospitals, the peak in admissions from the emergency department occurs between 3:00 PM and midnight. After midnight, the admissions slow down, the inpatients go to sleep, and the hospitalist workload drops. To optimize patient care coverage, some hospitals will create a “swing-shift” to cover the surge in admissions during the evening. Every hospital’s pattern of ER admission is different so swing-shifts could be from 3:00 to midnight, 5:00 to 10:00, etc.

The comprehensive services model. In many hospitals, the hospitalists do more than just serve as the attending physician for inpatients. For example, they may perform medical pre-operative consultation in an outpatient pre-admission testing clinic. They may provide medical consultation for surgical inpatients. They may have a designated “triage attending” to serve as a liaison between the hospitalist services and the emergency department or the outside referring hospitals. Or they may provide on-site supervision of infusion centers. In these situations (except for triage attending), the duration of a shift is determined by whenever the work is done, rather than by a specific time of day or number of hours. In general, these other services require fewer than 12 hours per day. These types of services are often attractive to hospitalists with young children since they are generally able to get home earlier than they would with a traditional 12-hour inpatient hospitalist shift.

Step 3: Determine how a 100% FTE will be defined

Once the hospital has determined how many inpatients a rounding hospitalist should cover and how the hospitalists are to be scheduled, the next step is to determine what will constitute a 100% FTE hospitalist. There are several ways of defining an FTE.

The shifts per month model. This works best when all of the hospitalists work 12-hour shifts. A full-time hospitalist is typically defined as 15 or 16 shifts per month (180 – 192 shifts per year). It generally takes about a half hour to check out at the end of every shift with the result that a 12-hour shift is really a 12.5-hour shift. This works out to about 43 – 46 hours per week on average. Some hospitals will grant additional time off for vacations and CME with the result that full-time may be fewer shifts per year, for example, 170 shifts.

The hours per month model. This model works when there there are different hospitalist shifts of varying durations. In this model, a hospitalist may be scheduled for shifts of a variety of durations up to some pre-agreed upon number of total hours per month. This results in a great deal of scheduling complexity and often requires considerable effort by the scheduler to ensure equity among the hospitalists. Many jobs define an FTE as 40 hours per week, however, most physicians work more than that. Although physician time surveys vary, most find that physicians average closer to 50 hours per week. If we extrapolate from the 15 – 16 twelve hour shifts per month model that results in 43 – 46 hours per week, then this would equate to 2,236 – 2,392 hours per year. Rigid adherence to a specific number of hours per year is difficult. Unlike other hospital employees, hospitalists do not punch in and out on a time clock. There are always some days when a hospitalist needs to stay in the hospital past the end of their shift to finish charting, complete the H&P on a late admission, or provide care for a critically ill patient. In addition, some hospitalists may check-out early to one of their peers once they complete their daily work.

The number of billed wRVUs model. If you look in the annual MGMA physician salary survey, you can find the mean, median, 25th percentile, 75th percentile, and 90th percentile of work RVUs  produced by physicians in every specialty. Using wRVUs as a general guide of FTE productivity can be useful for many specialties but as discussed in a previous post, it is inadvisable to pay individual hospitalists by the wRVU. Nor is it advisable to use wRVU targets to define an FTE. If wRUVs are used to benchmark hospitalist productivity, the RVU targets need to be for the entire hospitalist group and not for individual hospitalists. There is too much variation in RVU production intrinsic to different types of hospitalist shifts – fewer RVUs with night shifts, more with ICU shifts, and none for triage attending shifts. In other words, rather than requiring each of your 10 hospitalists to produce 4,300 wRVUs per year, instead require the entire group of hospitalists to produce 43,000 wRVUs per year.

The traditional workweek model. Most outpatient physicians define full-time as traditional office hours, working Monday through Friday, 8:00 – 5:00. With physician offices often closed on weekends, evenings, and holidays, this works fairly well for outpatient medicine. This model is harder to apply to hospitalists because illnesses requiring inpatient care are just as likely to occur on weekends and holidays as they are on weekdays. Therefore, hospitalists need to cover every day of the year. Nevertheless, some hospitals will have a core group of hospitalists who cover Monday through Friday day shifts. Part-time hospitalists or moonlighters cover weekends. And nights are either covered by home call, by inpatient advance practice providers, or by nocturnists. This model can sometimes work in smaller hospitals that care for lower acuity patients but is impractical in larger hospitals. The weekday hospitalists typically take care of their daily rounds and any admissions. They then leave the hospital in the afternoon, after their work is done. A typical full-time hospitalist in this model might work 46 weeks with 4 weeks of vacation, a week of CME, and a week for holidays. This equates to 230 working days per year.

The academic hospitalist model. In many teaching hospitals, the attending physicians on medical inpatient services are hospitalists who oversee care provided by internal medicine, family medicine, or pediatric residents. In this situation, the residents typically cover a given inpatient service for 4-week blocks. The attending hospitalist typically covers the teaching service daily for 2 weeks, although at some hospitals, the hospitalist covers the service for shorter (1 week) or longer (4 week) blocks. Because residents are in the hospital to perform H&Ps and care for any acute medical problems, the hospitalist can often leave the hospital after rounding with the resident and completing charting. This results in the hospitalist typically being in the hospital for 5 – 8 hours per day. The attending hospitalists generally provide back-up coverage to the residents at night by home call, either individually for their particular inpatient service or on a group rotational night call basis. Unlike the traditional workweek model, the academic hospitalist model generally requires both weekday and weekend coverage in order to ensure continuity of patient care and continuity of resident education. Thus, full time is considered less than 46 weeks and may be anywhere from 6 months (182 days per year) to 8 months (243 days per year) of service time.

Step 4: Determine how a part-time FTE will be defined

Once there is agreement between the hospital and the hospitalists on what will constitute a full-time FTE, it then becomes easier to assign a percent effort to part-time physicians and to determine how those part-time hospitalists will be paid.

For compensation of hospitalists who work less than 100% FTE, the easy answer is to make their base pay the same percent as their FTE. However, that can pose more cost to the employer since there are certain employer-paid expenses that are fixed, regardless of whether a hospitalist is 100% or 70% FTE. For example, the employer’s portion of health insurance premiums and life insurance premiums is the same for part-time employees as it is for full-time employees. Similarly, the employer’s cost of recruitment and credentialing is the same whether the hospitalist is 100% or 70%. In other words, it costs the employer more to have 2 hospitalists who each work 50% FTE than to have 1 hospitalist who works 100% FTE. Most hospitals are willing to cover those higher costs in order to keep high-performing hospitalists who wants to work part-time, particularly if there is a reasonable chance that the hospitalist will eventually return to 100% FTE in the future. For example, an experienced hospitalist who is a parent who wants to cut back to 70% for a few years until his/her child is older.

One size does not fit all

From the above discussion, it is clear that no one single model is best for all hospitals. Each hospital (and each hospitalist group) must examine its own unique inpatient service coverage needs in order to select the definition of “full-time” that fits best. From the hospital standpoint, it is important to be flexible and work with the hospitalists to be sure that they are happy with the model. From the hospitalist standpoint, it is important to ensure that a model that optimizes their work-life balance does not interfere with optimal patient care.

Because hospital censuses ebb and flow from year to year and because new hospitalists are hired from year to year, it is important that every hospital re-examines how full-time is defined periodically to ensure that the agreed upon model best fits the dynamic nature of inpatient medicine.

December 10, 2022

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital