Doctors now work fewer hours than lawyers! This finding has serious implications for the healthcare industry in coming years. Clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups will want to understand how this trend might affect their service relationships with physicians.
Researchers determined that—for the first time—doctors are working fewer hours than lawyers. They predict this trend could lead to doctor shortages as more and more baby boomer physicians retire. This study was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
In an interview with a U.S. News and World Report reporter, the study’s lead author, Douglas Staiger, Ph.D., Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire stated, “This is an unprecedented decline that we haven’t seen before in physicians, and you don’t see it for other professions, like lawyers.”
Three Decades of Census Data on Doctors’ Work Hours
The study was led by Staiger, who also is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Dartmouth researchers reviewed U.S. Census Bureau data from 1976-2008. They determined that, though the number of hours doctors spent at hospitals had been “stable at around 55 hours for decades,” in just the past decade the hours physicians spent at hospitals declined by about 7%, from 54.9 hours to 51 hours per week.
Researchers also found that doctor’s pay also decreased by a substantial amount between 1995 and 2006, by as much as 25%. They also reported that physicians who were paid the least also worked the least number of hours—just 49 hours per week. Some experts pointed out that this decline in physician reimbursement may significantly affect the number of hours doctors are willing to work.
Also interviewed in the U.S. News and World Report article was Michael Reis, M.D., Associate Regional Chief Medical Officer, Northern Regional Clinics, and the interim Chairman of the Family Medicine Department at Scott & White Healthcare in Tampa, Texas.
He was not surprised by this finding. “If you get paid less, you have less incentive to work harder,” he declared. “One problem is that physicians put off years of earning through college, medical school and residency, and are often way behind the eight ball when they’re done training. That may drive some to pick specialties that pay more for fewer hours.”
Reis’ comments suggests that the findings of the Dartmouth study might be due to physician’s leaving lower paid general practice (GP) jobs for higher paid specialty positions. However, Staiger argues that this theory is not supported by the statistics. “The decline in hours was very broad based,” he said. “It’s happening among all types of physicians—young and old—, and working at a hospital or not.”
Staiger’s researchers also found no statistical support for two common beliefs within the physician community. First, that the aging physician population may be reducing their work hours, and second, that the increased number of female physicians who might leave to start families, is responsible for the decreased hours. “Those were the first stories I heard when I began this study,” he said. “While it may be true that women doctors are working fewer hours because of families, we saw almost identical drops for males and females.”
The census data used in the Dartmouth study also showed that doctors who averaged 45 years or older averaged fewer hours on the job then their younger counterparts. Notably, the decline in the overall number of hours worked each week was twice as high for physicians under the age of 45 as it was among older doctors.
This leads Dark Daily to speculate that we now may be witnessing a major shift involving the younger Generation X and Generation Y doctors. Where Boomer docs—like other professionals of that generation—were frequently willing to work 80 hours or more per week throughout their careers, this motivation does not exist in Gen X and Gen Y doctors.
This observation must also be viewed with the fact that Gen X and Gen Y doctors will likely not see the kind of salaries once enjoyed by Baby Boomer physicians at the peak of their careers. Thus, it should be no surprise that growing numbers of physicians prefer to spend more time away from work, pursuing other activities.
These findings have a practical aspect for clinical laboratory managers and pathologists. When hiring pathologists and Ph.D.s from these two younger generations, it should be expected that these job candidates will have specific personal preferences for defined working hours, accompanied by generous compensation and time off. For clinical laboratories and pathology groups, this may necessitate staffing with extra personnel to meet the increasing volume of specimens flowing into the nation’s medical laboratories.