Editor’s note: Second in a two-part series.
I used last month’s column to frame the issue of disagreement between doctors over who should admit a particular patient, as well as discuss the value of good social connections to reduce the chance that divergent opinions lead to outright conflict. This month, I’ll review another worthwhile strategy—one that could be a definitive solution to these disagreements but often falls short of that goal in practice.
Service Agreements, or “Compacts,” between Physician Groups
If, at your hospital, there are reasonably frequent cases of divergent opinions regarding whether an ED admission or transfer from elsewhere should be admitted by a hospitalist or doctor in another specialty, why not meet in advance to decide this? Many hospitalist groups have held meetings with doctors in other specialties and now have a collection of agreements outlining scenarios, such as:
- ESRD patients: Hospitalist admits for non-dialysis issues (pneumonia, diabetic issues, etc.); nephrologist admits for urgent dialysis issues (K+>6.3, pH<7.3, etc.).
- Cardiology: Hospitalist admits CHF and non-ST elevation chest pain; cardiologist admits STEMI.
- General surgery: Hospitalist admits ileus, pseudo obstruction, and SBO due to adhesions; general surgery admits bowel obstruction in “virgin abdomen,” volvulus, and any obstruction thought to require urgent surgery.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting the above guidelines are evidence-based or are the right ones for your institution. I just made these up, so yours might differ significantly. I just want to provide a sense of the kinds of issues these agreements typically cover. The comanagement section of the SHM website has several documents regarding hospitalist-orthopedic service agreements.
The Negotiation Process
It’s tempting for the lead hospitalist to just have a hallway chat with a spokesperson from the other specialty, then email a draft agreement, exchange a few messages until both parties are satisfied, then email a copy of the final document to all the doctors in both groups. This might work for some simple service agreements, but for any area with significant ambiguity or disagreements (or potential for disagreements), one or more in-person meetings are usually necessary. Ideally, several doctors in both groups will attend these meetings.
Much work could be done in advance of the first meeting, including surveying other practices to see how they decide which group admits the same kinds of patents, gathering any relevant published research, and possibly drafting a “straw man” proposed agreement. When meeting in person, the doctors will have a chance to explain their points of view, needs, and concerns, and gain a greater appreciation of the way “the other guy” sees things. An important purpose of the in-person meeting is to “look the other guy in the eye” to know if he or she really is committed to following through.
Remember that written agreements like these might become an issue in malpractice suits, so you might want to have them reviewed first by risk managers. You might also write them as guidelines rather than rigid protocols that don’t allow variations.
Ideally, every doctor involved in the agreement should document their approval with a signature and date. My experience is that this doesn’t happen at most places, but if there is concern about whether everyone will comply, signing the document will probably help at least a little.
The completed agreements should be provided to all doctors in both groups, the ED, affected hospital nursing units, and others. Any new doctor should get a copy of all such agreements that might be relevant. And, most important, it should be made available electronically so that it is easy to find at any time. Some agreements cover uncommon events, and the doctors on duty might not remember what the agreement said and will need ready access to it.
Most service agreements should be reviewed and updated every two or three years or as needed. If there is confusion or controversy around a particular agreement, or if disagreements about which doctor does the admission are common despite the agreement, then an in-person meeting between the physician groups should be scheduled to revise or update it.
Keep Your Fingers Crossed
If it sounds like a lot of work to develop and maintain these agreements, it is. But they’re worth every bit of that work if they reduce confusion or discord. Sadly, for several reasons, they rarely prove so effective.
One doctor might think the agreement applies, but the other doctor says this patient is an exception and the agreement doesn’t apply. It is impossible to write an agreement that addresses all possible scenarios, so a doctor can argue that any particular patient falls outside the agreement because of things like comorbidities, which service admitted the patient last time (many agreements will have defined “bounce back” intervals), which primary-care physician (PCP) the patient sees, etc.
Even if there is no dispute about whether the agreement covers a particular patient, many doctors simply don’t feel obligated to uphold the agreement. Such a doctor might tell the ED doctor: “Yep, I signed the agreement, but only as a way to get the meeting over with. I was never in favor of it and just can’t admit the patient. Call the other guy to admit.” So in spite of all the work done to create a reasonable agreement, some doctors might feel entitled to ignore it when it suits them.
Compliance Is Critical
Sadly, my take is that despite the tremendous hoped-for benefits that service agreements might provide, poor compliance means they rarely achieve their potential. Even so, they are usually worth the time and effort to create them if it leads doctors in the two specialties to schedule time away from patient care to listen to the other group’s point of view and discuss how best to handle particular types of patients. In some cases, it will be the first time the two groups of doctors have set aside time to talk about the work they do together; that alone can have significant value.
Tom Lorence, MD, a Kaiser hospitalist in Portland, Ore., who is chief of hospital medicine for Northwest Permanente, developed more than 20 service agreements with many different specialties at his institution. He has found that they are worth the effort, and that they helped allay hospitalists’ feeling of being “dumped on.”
He also told me a rule that probably applies to all such agreements in any setting: The tie goes to the hospitalist—that is, when there is reasonable uncertainty or disagreement about which group should admit a patient, it is nearly always the hospitalist who will do so.
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 co-director for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course.