Hospitalists can enhance stroke care through collaboration, training, and specialization
by Larry Beresford
Ethan Cumbler, MD, is board-certified in internal medicine and pediatrics, and has practiced hospital medicine for six years, first at a community hospital and now at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD), where he directs the Acute Care for the Elderly service. The prevalence of stroke in his practice and the daily challenges of managing stroke patients led Dr. Cumbler to seek additional training in stroke care. He is the hospitalist representative to the UCD stroke council, a researcher in the arena of acute stroke care, and is helping UCD become a Joint Commission-certified stroke center.
“There are a variety of roles for the hospitalist in stroke care,” Dr. Cumbler says, explaining that HM physicians can be admitting attendings for stroke patients or part of acute stroke teams, and participate in decisions to start such treatments as intravenous recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA), the Food and Drug Administration-approved clot-busting therapy. “[Hospitalists] can be medical consultants on stroke patients admitted to other hospital services, managing common comorbid conditions such as blood pressure and glucose levels, which have particular character for patients immediately post-stroke.”
Stroke is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., as well as a leading cause of serious, long-term disability. How many stroke patients are seen by hospitalists is not known, but it is reasonable to assume that a majority of hospitalized stroke patients will encounter a hospitalist, if not for acute treatment, then for ongoing medical management.
Some hospitalists think stroke and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs)—temporary neurological deficits sometimes called “mini-strokes,” and a major risk factor for full-blown strokes—are among the most common diseases seen by hospitalists.1 Acute stroke care is a growing part of HM practice because neurologist availability in emergent situations varies widely between hospitals. The rapid evolution of stroke treatment and the time-sensitive needs of stroke patients represents a huge opportunity for hospitalists to fill that void for their hospitals—whether they want to or not.
“I think hospitalists are fully capable of learning and mastering stroke care, but it requires both interest and training,” Dr. Cumbler says.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), there are four neurologists per 100,000 Americans, and not all of those neurologists specialize in stroke care.2 The scarcity of neurological specialists means that in many hospitals, a neurologist won’t be available for the critical assessment and treatment decisions required in the first few hours after a stroke is diagnosed. Yet many hospitalists complain that their preparation during internal-medicine residency did not equip them to care for acute stroke patients.3
S. Andrew Josephson, MD, a neurovascular physician and director of the neurohospitalist program at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, says the number of hospitalists on the front lines of acute stroke care is growing every day. “A new stroke is a very treatable neurological emergency that requires ultra-fast intervention,”7 Dr. Josephson says, “and hospitalists, increasingly, are the people who matter most in that intervention.” The reason, in most cases, is hospitalists are available at all times, and neurologists aren’t.
Given variable access to neurologists at the time of urgent need in many hospitals, the actions hospitalists can take in acute stroke management include:
From 6.5% to 15% of stroke patients experience their stroke while they are in the hospital.4 “Hospitals are not always geared up to deal with neurological emergencies, and yet these patients are firmly within our domain,” Dr. Cumbler says. “We found that it took three times longer in our hospital to complete the evaluation when the stroke happened in the hospital than for strokes presenting in the emergency department.”
Through a hospitalwide quality-improvement (QI) project, UCD’s in-hospital stroke response time was reduced to 37 minutes from 70 minutes.
A comprehensive approach to stroke QI should include training first witnesses in the hospital (e.g., nurses, physical therapists, and housekeepers) to recognize potential stroke symptoms; creating a rapid response capability from personnel who understand how to evaluate and treat suspected stroke and are able to respond quickly; and making suspected stroke a top priority in the radiology lab.
Stroke patient management processes need to be improved and provider roles better defined. Hospitalists can help on the frontlines, and should advocate for quality and patient safety measures.
“Stroke has so many facets: the need to reduce risk, to educate the public about the need for prompt response, the appropriate evaluation of risks and benefits of treatment,” Dr. Cumbler says. “How do you achieve a system in the hospital where patients are fully able to realize benefits of all these advances? I think there’s something in stroke treatment for every hospitalist and, for those with a particular interest, opportunities to play leadership roles.”
Many compare the evolution of stroke care to that of more common conditions, and hospitalists have a buffet of new and improved treatments and technologies at their disposal. “This is an interesting time in the treatment of stroke,” Dr. Cumbler says. “We are at the cusp of a new era. Previously, stroke was one of the classic neurologic issues in hospital medicine, but we did not have much to offer. Now, as with heart attack, we have a growing array of urgent and effective treatment options, and new imaging techniques to determine whether to treat and with what type of treatment.”
New and emerging treatment approaches include:
Interventional strategies seek to combine intravenous t-PA with localized techniques to open occluded vessels. While these are cutting-edge and not yet integrated into medical routine, “they illustrate why stroke management is so exciting right now,” Dr. Cumbler says.
As stroke treatment becomes more standardized, hospitals will expect HM physicians to be thoroughly versed in optimal stroke care, says David Yu, MD, MBA, FACP, medical director of hospitalist services at Decatur Memorial Hospital in Illinois and a member of Team Hospitalist. “There will be a shift in hospital medicine, with the practice of neurology becoming more open to non-neurologists,” he says. “As opportunities for stroke treatment increase, more responsibility will fall on hospitalists. It is part of the evolution of our field.”
That evolution is reflected in Medicare’s decision in 2005 to begin paying hospitals a higher diagnostic-related grouping (DRG) rate for administering intravenous t-PA.5 DRG 559 pays a hospital about $6,000 more, regionally adjusted, for stroke treatment that includes intravenous t-PA, compared with stroke care without it. That differential creates incentives for the hospital to invest in infrastructure, staffing, and training.
Recent journal articles have explored the emergence of neurohospitalists—hybrid physicians who are loosely defined as neurologists whose primary focus is the care of hospitalized patients. The neurohospitalist trend is spurred by the same time and fiscal constraints that drove the HM movement, says William Freeman, MD, neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., and coauthor of one of those articles.6
Office-based neurologists increasingly are unavailable to respond to neurological emergencies in the hospital. Depending on the size of the hospital and its need for specialist access, an organized neurohospitalist group covering a schedule in the hospital could make significant contributions to quality of care, length of stay, and other stroke outcomes, Dr. Freeman says. “This field is starting to gel and crystallize, as more neurologists find themselves focusing their practice on site of care,” he notes.
Although not all experts agree, Dr. Freeman says that general hospitalists could become neurohospitalists, and vice versa. Neurologists could learn more internal medicine, and the two groups could work together more closely, he says.
Dr. Josephson of the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center reserves the term “neurohospitalist” for neurologists, but adds that medical hospitalists can manage neurologic disorders. He also sees potential for joint research on the management of hospitalized neurologic patients.
Drs. Freeman and Josephson have led discussions of the neurohospitalist model, both within AAN and in a recent conference call with SHM representatives. Data are limited on the numbers of physicians practicing this specialty, but job postings are growing and a neurohospitalist listserv sponsored by AAN grew to 250 members from 50 within six months. The University of California at San Francisco Medical Center established the first neurohospitalist fellowship in 2008, and a neurohospitalist journal is in development. “Most stroke patients are not seen by neurologists. I keep saying that at stroke conventions,” Dr. Josephson explains. “Hospitalists are going to continue to be out front on stroke management. Some will have a neurologist available. More likely, the hospitalist and neurologist will be participating in acute stroke management as part of some system of care with the emergency department or critical care.” TH
Larry Beresford is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif.
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