What Is a Hospitalist?

Steve Pantilat, MD

When I meet new people, I’m commonly asked, “So what do you do?” The first answer is easy: “I’m a doctor.” It’s the follow-up question that’s tricky: “What kind of doctor?”

“I’m a hospitalist,” I say.

“What’s that?”

I imagine that each of us faces similar questions almost daily from friends, family, patients, or strangers we meet. This tells me people are still learning who we are and what we are. I also imagine each of us has developed a standard way of answering that second question.

I like to say that a hospitalist is “a doctor who is an expert in taking care of people in the hospital.” Though not necessarily comprehensive, my definition usually does the job in casual conversation. In many ways I find this explanation easier than when I tried to describe myself as an “internist,” for which I never developed an easy definition. My favorite one-liner for internist was “pediatrician for adults,” but even that prompted blank stares or polite nods.

Early Definitions of Hospitalists

My definition certainly works in casual conversation. But the question gets to the heart of who we are, what we do, and what our field is about. Our ability to define these issues is critical to clarifying what hospitalists and hospital medicine are about.

It is interesting to look at early definitions of hospitalists. The first time the word hospitalist was published in 1996, hospitalists were defined as “specialists in inpatient medicine … who will be responsible for managing the care of hospitalized patients in the same way that primary care physicians are responsible for managing the care of outpatients.”1

At the beginning there was a need to compare what hospitalists do, or will do, to something that was already known. The concept was so new that it needed an analogy to be explained. Even in 1999, a paper published in Annals of Internal Medicine defined hospitalists as “physicians who assume the care of hospitalized patients in place of the patients’ primary care provider.”2

Three years after the term was first coined, hospitalists were still being defined in relationship to other physicians. Another paper in Annals of Internal Medicine in 1999 defined a hospitalist as “a physician who spends at least 25% of his or her time serving as the physician-of-record for inpatients, during which time he or she accepts ‘hand-offs’ of hospitalized patients from primary care providers, returning patients to their primary care providers at the time of hospital discharge.”3 Of course that definition was quite a mouthful when explaining what you do to, say, your mother. But there were two important issues wrapped up in that definition.


  1. ann mcfall says

    this sounds like an extenion of an emergency doctor,,,,,,,,,,eveyone i know sees this doctor as not having his own practice,,,,,,,,just a job that you clock into and requires x amount of hrs worked per day. yes he cares for patients in the hospital,,,,,,,,but the primary or specilist has left directions of what is to be done,,,,,,,sometimes its just a daily visit that can be charged to the patient. seems like a definition was needed so that it sounds like something that its not,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,and yessssss i have been seen by a ……hospitalist…..

  2. Kenneth N. Dicus says

    A “Hospitalist” almost killed 1 week ago. He refused to believe me when I called attention to the FACT that I am very allergic to certain medications. After all, he has been a doctor for 20 years.

    He prescribed a medication that he claimed would help me (I reminded him again).

    He assured me that the medicine did not contain anything I was allergic to.

    Turns out that it had AT LEAST 10 TIMES the amount that I am Allergic to..

    This was at the Saginaw, Michigan VA Hospital.

    dr. herve leblanc, HOSPITALIST.

    I saved the Epi-Pen that saved me from his 20 years of practice. The VE shipped me a replacement Pen. The advice I was given, was that perhaps I should try a Special Diet so these things don’t happen again.

    Go figure..

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