Managing against a decline in “physician hours worked”

Last week a health system chief medical officer asked if we were hearing other systems complain of difficulties in securing call coverage for key specialties, particularly orthopedics, GI and urology. We agreed: with proceduralists building larger outpatient businesses, often funded by investors, there is less incentive for groups to support hospital call. To fill the gaps, hospitals are having to negotiate lucrative deals for coverage, and the market feels like the “deal for every doc” years in the early 2000s, when specialists had leverage to negotiate bespoke partnership contracts. In this leader’s case, he ended up brokering a deal with gastroenterologists to serve in a hospital-based role, providing in-house coverage for consults. “These docs are able to make $600K a year, working about 30 hours per week. It’s insane,” he lamented. 
But beyond the cost of talent, he was concerned about the larger ramifications of these kind of roles on physician supply. “I’ve been thinking about a metric along the lines of ‘lifetime physician hours worked’, and how that has changed over time,” he shared. He explained that physicians of his generation expected to work 60- to 80- hour weeks for most of their careers. Most younger doctors want to work much less, say 40 or 50 hours.

Over a forty-year career, he calculated, the healthcare system could get 36,800, or roughly a third fewer, “lifetime work-hours” from a doctor starting today. And most early-career doctors also plan to retire younger. “Now don’t get me wrong,” he continued, “We probably worked too hard, and these younger guys are onto something.” But he was concerned about the ramifications for physician supply, and posited we are poised for a deep shortage of clinical talent.

Creating the future physician workforce will require not only training more doctors, but also finding ways to make their work hours more efficient, with greater use of technology and other caregivers, who must also be trained in greater numbers. It takes at least four years to train a nurse, and nearly a decade before a student entering medical school today becomes a practicing physician—we can’t afford such a long lag time before more physician capacity comes online.

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