Are rank-and-file hospitalists adequately equipped to deal with stroke care?
by Bryn Nelson, PhD
Stroke specialists like to say that “time is brain.” With an emphatic focus on those first few critical hours, however, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the vital role that hospitalists play in the days, weeks, and months that follow.
A recent study in The Neurohospitalist suggests that compared to community-based neurologists, practitioners of neurohospital medicine can reduce the length of stay for patients with ischemic stroke.1 A separate study, however, suggests that similar success might have come at a price for their less-specialized hospitalist counterparts.2 Among stroke patients, the latter study found that while the HM model is also associated with a reduced length of stay, it is associated with increased discharges to inpatient rehabilitation centers instead of to home, and higher readmission rates.
In sum, the evidence raises questions about whether rank-and-file hospitalists are adequately equipped to deal with a disease that is a core competency for the profession and ranks among the top sources of adult disability in the United States, at an estimated cost of $34.3 billion in 2008.3
“I think there’s been a mismatch between the training of the average hospitalist and then the expectations for the amount of neurological care they end up delivering once in practice,” says David Likosky, MD, SFHM, director of the stroke program at Evergreen Hospital Medical Center in Kirkland, Wash. “When surveyed, it’s been shown that hospitalists feel that care of stroke is one of the areas with which they’re least comfortable once they get out into practice.” Over the past decade, several studies have reinforced the notion of a training deficit.4,5
Demographic trends suggest that getting up to speed will be imperative, however. “One alarming thing we’re seeing is strokes among individuals that are not in the elderly group, and that group seems to be increasing at an alarming rate,” says Daniel T. Lackland, PhD, professor of epidemiology and neurosciences at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Hospitals are seeing more ischemic stroke patients in their 40s and 50s, likely a reflection of risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, and hyperlipidemia that are occurring earlier in life. And because those patients are younger, the aftermath of a stroke could linger for decades.
Although the stroke mortality rate is declining in the U.S., statistics find that about 14% of all patients diagnosed with an initial stroke will have a second one within a year, placing continued strain on a healthcare system already stretched thin.6 Hospitalists, Dr. Lackland says, have an “ideal” opportunity to help build up and improve that system, potentially yielding significant cost savings along with the dramatic improvement in quality of life. Making the most of that opportunity, though, will require a solid understanding of multiple trends that are quickly transforming stroke care delivery.
Kevin Barrett, MD, MSc, assistant professor of neurology and stroke telemedicine director at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., says hospitals are focusing more and more on a metric known as “door-to-needle time.” The goal is to treat at least half of incoming ischemic stroke patients with intravenous tissue-type plasminogen activator (IV tPA) within the first 60 minutes after onset of symptoms.
The American Heart Association/American Stroke Association has reinforced the message with its Get With the Guidelines Stroke Program. A recent analysis suggested the program has led to more timely tPA administration and, in turn, better patient outcomes (the program is funded in part through the Bristol-Myers Squib/Sanofi Pharmaceutical Partnership).7
At the same time, clinical research has widened the window for IV tPA delivery from three hours to 4.5 hours for certain patients after the onset of symptoms. Dr. Barrett says “strong evidence” from the European Cooperative Acute Stroke Study III has convinced most clinicians, and the FDA is expected to follow suit in officially approving the extension.8 As more stroke centers become certified, the use of IV tPA has increased accordingly.
Patients who have missed the time window or are not good candidates for IV tPA can still be aided by interarterial tPA at the site of the clot up to six hours after the onset of symptoms. Dr. Likosky says the treatment option should be of particular interest to hospitalists, given that strokes can occur post-operatively and in other patients who cannot receive IV tPA because of bleeding risk.
For up to eight hours after the onset of symptoms, mechanical clot removal techniques have shown continued efficacy at revascularizing affected areas, with some newer options also offering greater promise of improving patient outcomes. Even with the prospects of declining complication rates, however, “evaluating and initiating treatment in a timely fashion is still going to be one of the most important predictors of outcome,” Dr. Barrett says.
After the initial intervention, hospitalists often are the go-to providers for anticipating and preventing common post-stroke complications, such as aspiration pneumonia, VTE from immobilization, and other infections. The proper use of anti-platelet agents and high-dose statins, also falling solidly within the HM realm, can pay big dividends if used consistently.
Meanwhile, newer studies and clinical observations are widening the scope of considerations that should be on every hospitalist’s radar. Here are a few cited by stroke experts:
Permissive hypertension. After an ischemic stroke, the benefit of permissive hypertension is still widely misunderstood. Perhaps counterintuitively, high blood pressure after a stroke can help protect the area of the brain that is damaged but not yet dead, sometimes called the penumbra. “I highlight this because I think it’s a common mistake, that internists are very used to high blood pressure being a bad thing,” says Andrew Josephson, MD, associate professor of clinical neurology and director of the neurohospitalist program at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center. “And in general, it is; it’s a cause of stroke. But once somebody has a stroke, in the acute period, it’s important to allow the blood pressure to be high.”
Atrial fibrillation. The accepted role of atrial fibrillation in stroke is evolving. Research suggests that the common but often preventable arrhythmia is an important cause of stroke in about 15% to 20% of cases.9 By the time of hospital discharge, however, Dr. Josephson says physicians haven’t established a cause in about 1 in 4 cases. For these “cryptogenic strokes,” he says, doctors have long suspected that atrial fibrillation not picked up during the initial EKG or by the monitoring with cardiac telemetry could be a major cause.
Recent observations suggest that a longer monitoring period of up to 30 days may uncover atrial fibrillation in a sizable fraction of those patients, highlighting the importance of keeping a close eye on stroke patients both in the hospital and beyond. “It’s very important to identify, because atrial fibrillation changes what we do for folks to prevent a second stroke,” Dr. Josephson explains. Instead of anti-platelet medicine like aspirin, patients with atrial fibrillation often receive anticoagulants like warfarin, or the more recently approved dabigatran and rivaroxaban.
Transient ischemic attack. Improvements in imaging techniques like MRI have likewise begun to shift how stroke patients are treated. For example, Dr. Likosky says, medicine is moving away from a time-based definition of transient ischemic attack (TIA), in which symptoms resolve within 24 hours, to a tissue-based definition. Recent MRI imaging has uncovered evidence of a new infarction in more than half of patients initially diagnosed with TIA.10
“If they do have an infarction on their scan, even if they had symptoms that only lasted for five minutes, that’s a stroke,” Dr. Josephson says. And even a true TIA, he says, represents “a kind of stroke where you got really lucky and you’re not left with deficits, but the risk is still very high.” Accordingly, more patients with TIA are being admitted to the hospital to receive a full workup and preventive treatment. “We think that by evaluating these people urgently, we can reduce the risk of having a stroke by maybe 75% over a three-month time period,” Dr. Josephson says.
Hemorrhagic stroke. To date, the vast majority of patients with hemorrhagic stroke (which accounts for only 13% of all stroke cases) have been managed by neurosurgeons and neurologists. But here, too, Dr. Likosky says the picture could be changing. Recent findings that surgical treatment of intracranial hemorrhaging might not benefit many patients could shift the care paradigm toward a medical management strategy that involves more hospitalists.
The increasing complexity of stroke care and uneven distribution of resources and expertise have helped fuel several important innovations in delivery, most notably telestroke and neurohospital medicine. Both are being driven, in part, by an increased awareness of time-sensitive interventions and a frequent lack of on-site neurologists at smaller and more rural facilities. If telestroke programs are expanding the reach of neurologists, neurohospitalists are helping to fill the gaps in inpatient stroke care.
Amid the changes, one element is proving a necessary constant: a team approach that relies heavily on the HM emphasis on quality metrics, intensive monitoring, and careful coordination. Who better to lead the charge than hospitalists, says Mary E. Jensen, MD, professor of radiology and neurosurgery at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “They’re the ones who are in the hospital, and when these patients go bad, they go bad fast,” she says.
More broadly, Dr. Jensen says, hospitalists should get in on the ground floor when their facility seeks certification as a primary or a comprehensive stroke center. “And they need to make sure that the hospital isn’t just trying to get the sexy elements—the guy with the cath or the gal with the cath who can pull the clot out—but that they have a complete program that involves the care of the patient after they’ve had the procedure done,” she says.
As healthcare reform efforts are making clear, the responsibility doesn’t end after discharge, either. The Affordable Care Act includes a hospital readmission reduction program that will kick in this October, with penalties for hospitals posting unacceptably high 30-day readmission rates. Amy Kind, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Geriatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, is convinced that a key contributor to high rehospitalization rates among stroke patients may be the woefully incomplete nature of discharge communication.
Dr. Kind, for example, has found a disturbing pattern in communication regarding issues like dysphagia, a common complication among stroke patients and an important risk factor for pneumonia. Countering the risk usually requires such measures as putting patients on a special diet or elevating the head of their bed. “We looked at the quality of the communication of that information in discharge summaries, and it’s just abysmal. It’s absolutely abysmal,” she says. Without clear directives to providers in the next setting of care, such as a skilled-nursing facility, patients could be erroneously put back on a regular diet and aspirate, sending them right back to the hospital.
As one potential solution, Dr. Kind’s team is developing a multidisciplinary stroke discharge summary tool that automatically imports elements like speech-language pathology and dietary recommendations. Although most discharge communication may focus on more visible issues and interventions, Dr. Kind argues that some of the “bread and butter” concerns might ultimately prove just as important for long-term patient outcomes.
Karim Godamunne, MD, MBA, SFHM, vice president of clinical systems integration and medical director of Eagle Hospital Physicians in Atlanta, sees telemedicine as another potential tool to help reach patients after discharge, especially those who haven’t received follow-up care from a primary-care physician (PCP). “We need to be the champions at our hospitals for improving care processes, and we need to work in partnership with the nurses and the other professionals,” Dr. Godamunne says. “As a group, we can really make a difference, and stroke is one of those areas in which we can truly contribute.”
Bryn Nelson is a freelance medical writer in Seattle.
The Hospitalist newsmagazine reports on issues and trends in hospital medicine. The Hospitalist reaches more than 25,000 hospitalists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, residents, and medical administrators interested in the practice and business of hospital medicine.