Win Whitcomb: Hospitalists, PCPs, and Population Health

Win Whitcomb, MD, MHM

Jan. 1 marked the official start of the Accountable Care Organization (ACO) era, with 32 Pioneer ACOs across the country beginning a three-year program embracing the “three-part aim” of improving the health of the population, enhancing patient experience, and making costs sustainable. Later this year, many more ACOs will come on line around the country under the Medicare Shared Savings Program. Perhaps the biggest challenge to ACOs will be the management of the complex medically ill, or those individuals with two or more concurrent chronic conditions that require ongoing medical attention and/or limit activities of daily living.

In 2011, SHM embarked on a groundbreaking project to improve care coordination between hospitalists and primary-care physicians (PCPs). The Complex Medically Ill Project is being carried out at three health systems and has already had a positive impact. As part of the project, SHM is working with a mobile and online physician community, QuantiaMD, to both learn and teach during the one-year project. Parenthetically, in a short time, the collaboration has yielded glimpses of the potential of mobile technology to improve healthcare, or at least learn about physician attitudes and preferences.

In November 2011, SHM queried hospitalists and PCPs about communication and care coordination between the two specialties regarding treatment of the complex medically ill patient. Remarkably, 4,000 PCPs and hospitalists responded to the survey. In less than a month, we collected more information on this crucial topic than at any other time in the past.

SHM has prepared a white paper that will provide a full picture of what we learned. Here is a preview of the survey findings:

  • Improvement efforts in hospitalist-PCP communication should focus on 1) the hospital discharge and 2) the “black hole” —the time between hospital discharge and first follow-up with a PCP;
  • Hospitalists and PCPs feel that the telephone currently is the best communication tool, but both groups agree that technology solutions will improve care coordination more than human resources (e.g. a transitions coach) or process improvement (e.g. checklists or discharge bundles);
  • PCPs should be more involved in the inpatient care of the complex medically ill; and
  • There is a high degree of alignment between PCPs and hospitalists regarding the importance of robust communication for complex medically ill patients.

As ACOs and other approaches to payment innovation expand to effectively manage the health of a population, HM must evolve its focus away from just managing the individual patient during an acute hospitalization and toward a true collaboration with PCPs and the medical home. What will this look like? In pockets across the country, there are hospitalist systems that have enabled 1990s-style managed care to survive and thrive under Medicare Advantage programs (physician groups and hospitals that have aligned incentives under capitated or global payments). They provide some of the best insight into how HM can embrace population health management. The key elements of these hospitalist programs include:

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