QUESTION: Our Bylaws state that all of the members of the Active Staff are required to provide call coverage for our ED. Assuming that we only have two neurosurgeons who are able to cover the ED each month, does this mean they must take 15 days of call each? Our physician leaders are telling us that this is a tremendous burden, but we do not want to violate EMTALA.
ANSWER: A tough question, made even tougher by the fact that CMS has provided very little guidance on the reasonableness of hospital call schedules. In fact, it has even denounced a common “rule of thumb” that many hospitals have decided to follow over the years.
We are referring to the “rule of three” approach, which is based on prior, informal guidance from CMS that said if there were three physicians in a particular clinical specialty on a medical staff, the hospital had the obligation to provide emergency services on a 24/7/365 basis for that specialty. This has been extrapolated to mean that, in a specialty with fewer than three physicians (like in the question above), each physician should provide 10 days/month of call coverage.
But before you start revisiting your own On-Call Policy requirements, keep in mind that CMS never put this rule in writing and now denies it ever existed. Instead, it uses a rather nebulous “all relevant” factors test to evaluate the reasonableness of a hospital’s call schedule. This means that each hospital should consider factors like the number of physicians available to take call, other demands on these physicians, frequency of emergency cases in that specialty, etc. to determine its on-call schedule.
This may not be as helpful as a “rule of three” or “rule of five” approach that we still see some hospitals follow, but it is important to recognize CMS does not have a bright line rule that require 24/7/365-day coverage for each specialty, so there is some flexibility.