Practice Management

Multi-Site Hospital Medicine Group Leaders Face Similar Challenges


 

Let’s call them multi-site, hospital medicine group leaders, or just multi-site HMG leaders. Once rare, they’re now becoming common, and among the many people now holding this job are:

  • Dr. Doug Apple at Spectrum Health Medical Group in Grand Rapids, Mich;
  • Dr. Tierza Stephan at Allina Health in Minneapolis, Minn.;
  • Dr. Darren Thomas at St. John Health System in Tulsa, Okla.;
  • Dr. Thomas McIlraith at Dignity Health in Sacremento, Calif.; and
  • Dr. Rohit Uppal at Ohio Health in Columbus, Ohio.

The career path that led to their current position usually follows a standard pattern. They are a successful leader of a single-site hospitalist program when, through merger or acquisition, their hospital becomes part of a larger system. The executives responsible for this larger system—typically four to eight hospitals—realize that the HMGs serving each hospital in the system vary significantly in their cost, productivity, and performance on things like patient satisfaction and quality metrics. So they tap the leader of the largest (or best performing) HMG in the system to be system-wide hospitalist medical director. They nearly always choose an internal candidate rather than recruiting from outside, which brings some level of cohesion in operations and performance improvement.

Multi-Site Challenges

This is not an easy job. After all, it isn’t easy to serve as lead hospitalist for a single-site group, so it makes sense that the difficulties and challenges only increase when trying to manage groups at different locations.

The new multi-site HMG leader is busy from the first day on the job. The HMG at one site is short on staffing and needs help right away, patient satisfaction scores are poor at the next site, and so on. Although putting out these fires is important, the new leader also needs to think about how to accomplish a broader mission: ensuring greater cohesion across all groups.

A large portion—maybe even the majority—of all transfers in the system will be between a hospitalist at the small hospital and a partner hospitalist at the large hospital. Things will work best when the transferring and receiving hospitalists know something about the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s hospitals.

I don’t think there is a secret recipe to ensure success in such a job. Prerequisites include the usual leadership skills, such as patience, good listening, and diplomacy (collectively, one’s EQ, or emotional quotient), along with lots of energy and decisive action. But there are a number of practical matters to address that can influence the level of success.

Cohesion vs. Independence

In most situations, a health system will benefit from some common operating principles across all the HMGs who serve its hospitals. For example, it usually makes sense for any portion of compensation tied to performance (e.g., a bonus) to be based on the same performance domains at all sites. For example, if metrics such as the observed-to-expected mortality ratio (O:E ratio) and patient satisfaction are important to the hospital system, then they should probably influence hospitalist compensation at every site. However, it might be reasonable to target a level of performance for any given domain higher at one site than at another.

Among the many things that should be the same across all sites are operational practices: charge capture, coding audits, performance reviews, dashboard elements and format, and credentialing for new hires. Other things, like individual hospitalist productivity, work schedule, and method and amount of compensation, should vary by site because of the unique attributes of the work at each place.

Fixed Locale vs. Rotations

The travel time between hospitals and the value of extensive experience in the details of how each particular hospital operates usually make it most practical for each individual hospitalist to work nearly all of the time at one hospital. But every doctor should be credentialed at every other hospital in the system so that he can cover a staffing shortage elsewhere.

And, hospitalists hired to work primarily at one of the small hospitals would probably benefit from working at the large referral hospital for the first few weeks of employment. This seems like a great way for them to become familiar with the people and operations at the big hospital, especially since they will be transferring patients there periodically.

Governance

Some mix of central control vs. local autonomy in decision making at each site is important for success. There aren’t any clear guidelines here, but providing the local doctors at each location with the ability to make their own decisions on things like work schedule will contribute to their sense of ownership of the practice. That feeling is valuable and supports good performance.

My bias is that each site in a practice could adopt the same “internal governance” guidelines, or rules by which they make decisions when unable to reach consensus (see “Play by the Rules,” December 2007, for sample guidelines.)

There should also be some form of “umbrella” governance structure in which the local site leaders meet regularly with the multi-site HMG leader.

Patient Transfers

One reason hospitals merge into a single system is the hope that they can more effectively meet the needs of all patients in the system’s hospitals. A typical configuration is several small hospitals, along with a single, large, referral center, to which patients are sent if the small hospital can’t meet their needs. The hope is that if all the hospitals are in the same system, the process of transfer can be smoother and more efficient.

A large portion—maybe even the majority—of all transfers in the system will be between a hospitalist at the small hospital and a partner hospitalist at the large hospital. Things will work best when the transferring and receiving hospitalists know something about the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s hospitals. And, you only know one another reasonably well from working together on committees or being on clinical service together at the same hospital, as well as social functions that include hospitalists from all sites.

Therefore, the multi-site HMG leader should think deliberately about how to ensure that the hospitalists interact with one another often, and not just when a transfer needs to take place.

A written agreement outlining the criteria for an appropriate transfer can be helpful. But such agreements cannot address all the situations that will arise, so good relationships between doctors at the different sites are invaluable and worth taking the time to cultivate.

Communication

Like the five people I mentioned above, anyone holding the position of multi-site HMG leader would benefit from talking with others in the same position. I’m working to arrange some forum for such communication, potentially including an in-person meeting at HM14 in Las Vegas in March (www.hospitalmedicine2014.org). If you are a health system-employed, multi-site HMG leader and want to be part of this conversation, I would love to hear from you.


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. Write to him at john.nelson@nelsonflores.com.

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