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John Nelson: Your Hospital Should Use Scripts to Describe Hospitalists to Patients

From: The Hospitalist, May 2012

Ideally, all communication about the hospitalist as an individual and the whole system of hospitalist care should help reassure the patient. Sadly, many people at the hospital unwittingly do the opposite.

by John Nelson, MD, MHM

John Nelson, MD, MHM

My anecdotal experience (no scientific research data) has convinced me that nearly every patient has some or all of the following questions or concerns when admitted by a hospitalist for the first time:

  • Why is my usual doctor (PCP) not going to be in charge of my hospital care?
  • Is the hospitalist a “real” doctor or someone in training, and whatdoes my regular doctor think of the hospitalist?
  • Does the arrival of the hospitalist mean my long-term relationship with my PCP has been severed and I’ll see the hospitalist for all care (inpatient and outpatient) from now on?
  • How will the hospitalist know my medical history, and will she communicate with my PCP?

Ideally, all communication about the hospitalist as an individual and the whole system of hospitalist care should help answer these questions and reassure the patient. Sadly, many people at the hospital unwittingly do the opposite.

Unintentional Undermining of Patient Confidence

Despite good intentions, doctors and nurses at the hospital often describe hospitalists to patients in a way that undermines the patients’ satisfaction and confidence in the hospitalist. They may say something like: Your doctor (PCP) doesn’t come to the hospital anymore and we have these doctors who are here all the time called hospitalists. I’ll ask one of them to see you.

To a patient, this might sound like he’s getting just any old doctor who happens to be around with nothing to do, rather than someone who specializes in the care of hospital patients and comes highly recommended by his PCP. The patient is left wondering why their “regular doctor” isn’t in charge of the hospital care, and often suspects the PCP has terminated their relationship or has been forced to refer by an insurance company when, in fact, the PCP chose to refer. Misunderstandings like these are a recipe for less satisfied and less confident patients.

Most hospitalist groups have a brochure explaining their practice, which addresses all of these points. (A simple Internet search for “hospitalist brochure patient information” or similar terms will reveal a number of good samples.) However, some patients never get a copy, and many won’t read it. So just having a brochure isn’t enough; there needs to be a way to ensure that all verbal communication serves to enlighten and reassure the patient.

Despite good intentions, doctors and nurses at the hospital often describe hospitalists to patients in a way that undermines the patients’ satisfaction and confidence in the hospitalist.

Scripts for Nurses and Non-Hospitalist Physicians

Nurses and non-hospitalist doctors might not realize they’re sowing seeds of unhappiness in how they describe the hospitalist. Targeted education usually is necessary and can provide them with a new way of talking about the hospitalist. In most cases, it will be most effective to provide them with a script to use. For example, they could say: Your doctor has decided to focus her practice on the office to be more available to you there. As a result, she has decided to refer you to Dr. Bonamassa, a doctor who specializes in the care of hospitalized patients with problems like yours. Dr. Bonamassa will communicate with your primary doctor, and you should plan to follow up with her when you are discharged.

Or:

Your doctor has asked Dr. Trucks to take care of you while you are in the hospital. He is a specialist in the care of hospitalized patients and works with a team of doctors who are in the hospital 24 hours a day. Dr. Trucks will be your main doctor while you are in the hospital.

The Two Most Valuable Things For A Patient To Hear Are...

  1. That their PCP is in favor of the referral to a hospitalist, and that the patient’s relationship with the PCP will remain intact. Many patients worry that the arrival of the hospitalist means they won’t see their PCP ever again. Hence, the value in mentioning the patient will follow up with their usual PCP after discharge.
  2. That the hospitalist is a doctor devoted to the care of hospitalized patients, or a specialist in hospital care, rather than just a doctor who happens to be available.

My experience is that some PCPs worry that their patients might think less of them if they don’t provide hospital care. So despite good intentions, these PCPs’ words, demeanor, or body language could communicate unhappiness in, or something other than enthusiasm for, the hospitalist. The PCP may tell the patient something like, “I’m sending you to the hospital where you’ll be seen by a hospitalist, but I’ll be involved or overseeing everything.” This might be said with the intention of reassuring the patient, but it has the effect of undermining the patient’s confidence in the hospitalist. Such PCPs would benefit from adopting a better script.

It takes a reasonable amount of encouragement and cajoling to get others to adopt a script like I’ve suggested above, and requires periodic remedial education to ensure it isn’t abandoned in favor of old habits. But it is worth the effort.

Ensure Others Know the Hospitalist’s Name

Using the above scripts will have limited value if others don’t have a way of knowing the name of the hospitalist who will actually see the patient. If a worried family walks out of a room and asks the nurse, “Who is taking care of my father?” it is a lot better for the nurse to respond with the hospitalist’s name rather than “Your father is on the gold service, and the gold team doctor will be around later. I’m not sure which doctor has the gold service today.”

Try to ensure that everyone at the hospital knows which hospitalist is caring for every patient every day.

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988. He is co-founder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is course co-director for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course

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