Rapid-Response Teams Help Hospitalists Manage Non-Medical Distress

A team that could respond quickly to social and behavioral concerns—and not medical issues per se—would have tremendous benefits for patients and caregivers.

I think there has been a steady increase, over the last 20 years or so, in the number of very unhappy, angry, or misbehaving patients (e.g. abusive/threatening to staff). In some cases, the hospital and caregivers have failed the patient. In other cases, their frustration arises out of things outside the hospital’s direct control, such as Medicare observation status, or perhaps the patient or family is just unreasonable or suffering from a psychiatric or substance abuse disorder.

I’m not talking about the common occurrence of a disappointed patient or family who might calmly complain about something. Instead, I want to focus on those patients who, whether we perceive them as justifiably unhappy or not, are so angry that they become very time consuming and distressing to deal with. Maybe they shout about how their lawyer will be suing us and the newspaper will be writing a story about how awful we are. Or they shout and throw things, and staff become afraid of them.

In my May 2013 column, I discussed care plans for patients like this who are admitted frequently, but such plans are not sufficient in every case.

A Haphazard Approach

Most hospitals have an informal process of dealing with these patients; it starts with the bedside nurse and/or doctor trying to apologize or make adjustments to satisfy and calm the patient. If that fails, then perhaps the manager of the nursing unit gets involved. Others may be recruited, such as someone from the hospital’s risk management or “patient advocate” departments and hospital executives such as the CNO, CMO, or CEO. Sometimes several of these people may meet as a group in an effort to come up with a plan to address the situation. But, most institutions do not have a clear and consistent approach to this important work, so the hospital personnel involved end up “reinventing the wheel” each time.

The growing awareness that hospital personnel don’t seem to have a robust and confident approach to addressing this type of situation can increase a patient’s distress, and it may embolden some to become even more demanding or threatening.

And all of this takes a significant toll on bedside caregivers, who often spend so much time dealing with the angry patient that they have less time to devote to other patients, who are in turn at least a little more likely to become unhappy or suffer as a result of a distressed and busy caregiver.

A Consistent Approach: RRT for Non-Medical Distress

I think the potential benefit for patients and caregivers is significant enough that hospitals should develop a standardized approach to managing such patients, and rapid response teams (RRTs) could serve as a model. To be clear, I’m not advocating that RRTs add management of very angry or distressed patients to their current role. Let’s call it an “RRT for non-medical distress.” And, while I think it is a worthwhile idea, and I am in the early steps of trying to develop it at “my” hospital, I’m not aware of any such team in place anywhere now.

For example, the team members could include two nursing unit directors, a risk manager, a patient advocate (or patient satisfaction “czar”), a psychiatrist, the hospitalist medical director, the chief medical officer, and a few other individuals selected for their communication skills.

To make it practical, I think this team should be available only during weekday business hours and would comprise something like six to 10 people with clinical backgrounds who do mostly administrative work. For example, the team members could include two nursing unit directors, a risk manager, a patient advocate (or patient satisfaction “czar”), a psychiatrist, the hospitalist medical director, the chief medical officer, and a few other individuals selected for their communication skills.

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