One of the most complex tasks present in managing healthcare organizations is physician scheduling. Every organization has unique needs and challenges inherent to its physician scheduling process. However, there is one common challenge facing all organizations, and that is satisfying both patient and organization requirements as well as provider needs and preferences when generating physician schedules.

In a 2009 study, this challenge was termed the Master Physician Scheduling Problem, which is defined as “the tactical planning problem of assigning physician activities to time slots over a time horizon incorporating a large number of rostering and resource constraints together with complex physician preferences.” In general, the Master Physician Scheduling Problem can be summarized as the challenge of satisfying the often conflicting needs and preferences of two key groups: (1) the patients and the organization and (2) the providers. The specific requirements associated with these two key groups vary from one healthcare organization, facility, and department to the next. Outlined below are examples of these varied scheduling requirements.

Patient and Organization Requirement Provider Needs and Preferences
Ensuring 24/7 coverage for all shifts 365 days a year Equalizing weekend and holiday assignments
Ensuring 24/7 coverage for all shifts 365 days a year Scheduling providers according to individual FTE targets
Maximizing patient continuity by scheduling providers for a minimum number of consecutive days Ensuring appropriate spacing or days off between or after certain assignments
Assigning credentialed physicians to specific assignments Limiting the frequency of more strenuous assignments
Meeting patient demand for staffing across multiple disciplines Accommodating individual provider scheduling preferences and time-off requests


Each set of priorities individually adds great complexity to physician scheduling, and for some organizations, meeting all of the demands means compromise. However, compromising patient and organization needs compromises patient care, and compromising provider needs and preferences compromises provider satisfaction, which jeopardizes provider retention. So how does an organization find compromise when there isn’t much room for any?

Fortunately, the answer isn’t so much in finding compromise but instead in finding a solution with the ability to achieve maximum overlap in its fulfillment of both patient and organization needs as well as the individual needs and preferences of providers. Such a solution comes in the form of an automated physician scheduling software that, at its core, supports optimal physician scheduling.


Provider Diagram


Automated scheduling software supports optimal physician scheduling through advanced technology known as combinatorial optimization, which allows a system to consider at one time all of the complex moving parts that comprise a physician schedule. This big picture approach is a stark contrast to a step-by-step approach, which is utilized most commonly when a physician schedule is created by hand but is also present in the technology supporting many suboptimal physician scheduling systems.

Automated scheduling software that supports optimal scheduling through combinatorial optimization has the ability to consider patient and organization requirements as well as the individual needs and preferences of providers. The challenge of satisfying these often conflicting needs is met by translating them into scheduling rules, which are assigned a specific numerical value that communicates to the system each rule’s relative priority. The granularity of this numerically defined prioritization allows the scheduling system to generate a complete schedule by breaking the rules with the least priority and, therefore, the least impact on quality patient care and provider satisfaction. The result, then, is an optimal physician schedule that reflects a maximum overlap of two distinct sets of needs and preferences that once seemed incompatible.

–Rachel Worsham