The number of general internists choosing a career in hospital medicine jumped from 25% to 40% over 10 years, according to data from the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM).
In a new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers from the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) reviewed certification data from 67,902 general internists, accounting for 80% of all general internists certified in the United States from 1990-2017.
The researchers also used data from Medicare fee-for-service claims from 2008-2018 to measure and categorize practice setting types. The claims were from patients aged 65 years or older with at least 20 evaluation and management visits each year. Practice settings were categorized as hospitalist, outpatient, or mixed.
“ABIM is always working to understand the real-life experience of physicians, and this project grew out of that sort of analysis,” said lead author Bradley M. Gray, PhD, a health services researcher at ABIM in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in an interview. “We wanted to better understand practice setting, because that relates to the kinds of questions that we ask on our certifying exams. When we did this, we noticed a trend toward hospital medicine.”
Overall, the percentages of general internists in hospitalist practice and outpatient-only practice increased during the study period, from 25% to 40% and from 23% to 38%, respectively. By contrast, the percentage of general internists in a mixed practice setting decreased from 52% to 23%, a 56% decline. Most of the physicians who left the mixed practice setting switched to outpatient-only practices.
Among the internists certified in 2017, 71% practiced as hospitalists, compared with 8% practicing as outpatient-only physicians. Most physicians remained in their original choice of practice setting. For physicians certified in 1999 and 2012, 86% and 85%, respectively, of those who chose hospitalist medicine remained in the hospital setting 5 years later, as did 95% of outpatient physicians, but only 57% of mixed practice physicians.
The shift to outpatient practice among senior physicians offset the potential decline in outpatient primary care resulting from the increased choice of hospitalist medicine by new internists, the researchers noted.
The study findings were limited by several factors, including the reliance on Medicare fee-for-service claims, the researchers noted.
“We were surprised by both the dramatic shift toward hospital medicine by new physicians and the shift to outpatient only (an extreme category) for more senior physicians,” Gray told Medscape.
The shift toward outpatient practice among older physicians may be driven by convenience, said Gray. “I suspect that it is more efficient to specialize in terms of practice setting. Only seeing patients in the outpatient setting means that you don’t have to travel to the hospital, which can be time consuming.
“Also, with fewer new physicians going into primary care, older physicians need to focus on outpatient visits. This could be problematic in the future as more senior physicians retire and are replaced by new physicians who focus on hospital care,” which could lead to more shortages in primary care physicians, he explained.
The trend toward hospital medicine as a career has been going on since before the pandemic, said Gray. “I don’t think the pandemic will ultimately impact this trend. That said, at least in the short run, there may have been a decreased demand for primary care, but that is just my speculation. As more data flow in we will be able to answer this question more directly.”
Next steps for research included digging deeper into the data to understand the nature of conditions facing hospitalists, Gray said.
Implications for primary care
“This study provides an updated snapshot of the popularity of hospital medicine,” said Bradley A. Sharpe, MD, of the division of hospital medicine at the University of California San Francisco. “It is also important to conduct this study now as health systems think about the challenge of providing high-quality primary care with a rapidly decreasing number of internists choosing to practice outpatient medicine.” Sharpe was not involved in the study.
“The most surprising finding to me was not the increase in general internists focusing on hospital medicine, but the amount of the increase; it is remarkable that nearly three quarters of general internists are choosing to practice as hospitalists,” Sharpe noted.
“I think there are a number of key factors at play,” he said. “First, as hospital medicine as a field is now more than 25 years old, hospitals and health systems have evolved to create hospital medicine jobs that are interesting, engaging, rewarding (financially and otherwise), doable, and sustainable. Second, being an outpatient internist is incredibly challenging; multiple studies have shown that it is essentially impossible to complete the evidence-based preventive care for a panel of patients on top of everything else. We know burnout rates are often higher among primary care and family medicine providers.
“On top of that, the expansion of electronic health records (EHRs) and patient access has led to a massive increase in messages to providers; this has been shown to be associated with burnout.”
The potential impact of the pandemic on physicians’ choices and the trend toward hospital medicine is an interested question, Sharpe said. The current study showed only trends through 2017, he noted.
“To be honest, I think it is difficult to predict,” he said. “Hospitalists shouldered much of the burden of COVID care nationally and burnout rates are high. One could imagine the extra work (as well as concern for personal safety) could lead to fewer providers choosing hospital medicine.
“At the same time, the pandemic has driven many of us to reflect on life and our values and what is important and, through that lens, providers might choose hospital medicine as a more sustainable, doable, rewarding, and enjoyable career choice ,” Sharpe emphasized.
“Additional research could explore the drivers of this clear trend toward hospital medicine. Determining what is motivating this trend could help hospitals and health systems ensure they have the right workforce for the future and, in particular, how to create outpatient positions that are attractive and rewarding,” he said.
The study received no outside funding. The researchers and Sharpe have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.
Ann Intern Med. Published online May 17, 2022. Abstract
Heidi Splete is a freelance medical journalist with 20 years of experience.