Thursday, June 14, 2012

Doctor work hours are dropping

After decades of working exceptionally long hours, U.S. physicians have steadily shortened their workweek in recent years. A study led by Dartmouth economist Douglas Staiger, Ph.D., found that doctors today are working an average of 51 hours a week, a substantial decline from the 55 hours a week they worked throughout the 1980s and 1990s. ...

The four-hour change is "very unusual for an occupation," Staiger says. To analyze trends in physician hours, he and his colleagues used three decades of data from a monthly U.S. Census Bureau survey. They were "really surprised at how broad-based the decline was," Staiger says. All groups of physicians—men, women, younger doctors, older doctors, residents, and nonresidents—saw a substantial decline in hours. ...

The researchers found a strong correlation between the number of hours worked and physician fees. Inflation-adjusted fees were constant during the early 1990s but dropped by 25% from 1995 to 2006. "When fees go down, that last hour of work is less rewarding," financially and in other ways, Staiger explains. ...

Usually, Staiger says, physician supply forecasts "assume that physician hours will remain at their traditionally high levels." But the three-hour drop for nonresidents is roughly equivalent to cutting 36,000 physicians from the workforce. So the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, could be seen as evidence that a doctor shortage truly is just around the corner.
--Katherine Vonderhaar, Dartmouth Medicine, on why your doctor won't see you