Before his recent promotion, hospitalist Garth King, MD, medical director of the Schumacher Group at Southwest Medical Center in Lafayette, La., had hoped to add a fourth full-time doctor to his roster. The hiring made sense at the time. As recently as last summer, the group’s three full-time doctors were averaging 35 to 40 patient encounters a day, enough to warrant the additional hospitalist position. But the group’s census dropped 25% in the fourth quarter of 2008, and these days, Dr. King simply can’t justify the math to bring on another six-figure salary.
“Over the past two, three months, patient slowdown has pushed off the ability” to add staff, Dr. King explains. “We’ll wait until things ramp up again, once we get the numbers to where they were before.”
Dr. King could be in for a long wait. The fiscal meltdown that began in 2007 and last year mushroomed into a full-blown recession has taken hold in the world of hospital medicine. More and more, hospitals are reporting decreased revenues and increased levels of charity care. The result: Planned group expansions have been put on hold, open positions are going unfilled, and some hospitalists have been laid off.
Constituencies from health-system executives to rank-and-file hospitalists to economists remain cautious of acting too boldly before President Obama and the new Congress unveil much-anticipated changes to Medicare billing and reimbursement schedules. Aggressive reforms, such as extending health coverage to more than 45 million uninsured Americans, could swamp hospitals with new patients and lead to cuts in reimbursement rates. A more temperate approach by the new administration could leave a relative status quo.
Either way, hospital medicine has never endured a recession so deep that some healthcare economists liken it to the Great Depression, so the practical effect on the industry is difficult to forecast with accuracy. Hospitalists and their observers agree on one thing, though: This is the year hospital medicine will have to prove its worth more empirically than ever. Positive public relations and studies proclaiming reduced lengths of stay and sped-up emergency department throughput have given the industry a “rarified position as a specialty,” one researcher says. But in constrictive economic times, those figures likely will be revisited, says Mark Pauly, professor of healthcare management at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “When revenues are falling, you go back and look at that evidence again,” Pauly says. “Is it really bulletproof?”