Blog | Thursday, June 16, 2016

The delusion continues (part 3)

In response to my last post a reader emailed me the following: Very easy to sit at a keyboard and throw blog bombs … I would be thrilled to hear your constructive suggestions for a solution(s).

Fair enough. I'll address that. But it's important, I think, to first say a few words about this blog, which is now in its eighth year. From the beginning, we wanted to make controversial issues a focal point, and the issue of the infectious disease (ID) workforce (or lack thereof) is controversial and a topic of great interest to readers. In addition, we welcome comments and guest blog posts to offer alternative viewpoints. Eli Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, Dan Diekema, MD, FACP, and I don't always agree with each other (as is evident in our posts). The only comments that are censored are those advertising black market erectile dysfunction drugs and other products. And all requests for guest posts have been honored unless the author has conflicts of interest with industry. So readers, please feel free to respond to our posts.

My comments on the workforce/compensation issue and IDSA's response are made in the context of my experience with these issues. In my former job as an infectious diseases division chief in an academic medical center, I had firsthand experience with the difficulties of recruiting fellows and faculty, the inequities that resulted from a purely relative value unit-based compensation plan, and the toll this took on teaching and morale.

At the same time, I was observing a private health system across town crank through a multitude of infectious diseases doctors, each of whom left practice once their guaranteed salary expired and they one by one came to the realization that they couldn't generate enough RVUs to maintain their salaries. Several of these physicians became hospitalists.

In my current position, I see my division chief struggling with trying to balance his budget, offer salaries that can compete with other hospitals and medical schools, deal with ever increasing consultation volumes and expectations for rapid responses to consult requests, while trying to minimize the stress all of this has on his fellows and faculty members. We now have starting salaries for brand new nurse practitioners that are within a few thousand dollars of junior ID faculty salaries.

I'll be the first to admit that my experience may not be the same as others. In the IDSA compensation survey, 1 respondent reported a salary of $1.45 million, so obviously his situation is quite different than mine and his views on these issues probably are as well.

I did a little more research on salaries by looking at the Association of American Medical Colleges data. The median salary for an infectious disease assistant professor is $152,000, while the median for a hospitalist assistant professor is $207,000. For a third year internal medicine resident, that's a huge difference. At the associate and full professor levels, hospitalists still earn more money than infectious diseases specialists. Moreover, hospitalists salaries are rising yearly at a higher percentage than ID's, so the difference continues to expand.

Another interesting finding is that of salaries for chairs of Departments of Internal Medicine. Unfortunately, if you're an infectious diseases doctor you'll earn significantly less than your chair peer who's an invasive cardiologist, a difference of about $350,000. And what do cardiologists learn in their fellowship about being a department chair that would explain that difference? I hate to sound like Donald Trump, but it's a rigged system. And it follows you throughout your career.

As for constructive suggestions for solutions, I've written about this in older posts, but here are a few:
• Focus on the parity with hospitalists, since that's our biggest threat with regards to recruitment of residents into infectious diseases. Until ID salaries are at least as good as hospitalists', there's little reason to think that we will turn this around.
• Consider shortening the ID fellowship to positively affect the cost-benefit calculus of additional training. Do trainees who plan to enter private practice really need hands-on training in research or scholarly activities?
• Develop hybrid models of training to lessen the economic impact on trainees (for example, integrate ID training with hospitalist practice). Various models could be envisioned—such as one month hospitalist attending, alternating with one month ID fellowship. This would increase the fellow's salary, and even if the total duration of training were extended, may entice more residents to consider ID training. Some would probably continue this model beyond training into employment.
• If IDSA is working hard to address these issues, it's not apparent from their website or communications with its members. Most importantly, in my view, IDSA needs to own the workforce issue and honestly deal with it. And that begins by calling it what it is–a crisis. A crisis, magnified by the many problems that are in the news every day, like Zika virus and antimicrobial resistance. I'm not a communications specialist, but it seems to me that these issues could be highlighted to help our cause.

Unfortunately, the two articles and editorial published this week in IDSA's journals spin an unrealistic view of the problem. I doubt that the your-salary's-not-as-bad-as-you-think-it-is campaign will have much impact. Time will tell. In December, we'll see the results of the next Match.

Michael B. Edmond, MD, FACP, is a hospital epidemiologist in Iowa City, IA, with a focus on improving the quality and safety of health care, and sees patients in the inpatient and outpatient settings. This post originally appeared at the blog Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention.