Hospitalists Stretched as their Responsibilities Broaden


The very nature of America’s hospitals is changing. At one time in the not too distant past, hospitals could charge “cost-plus,” tacking on a profit above their actual expenses. Hospitals generated most of their revenue from procedures on horizontal patients with long stays in house. Physicians viewed the hospital as a swap meet, with each physician having an autonomous booth and not caring much what went on elsewhere in the facility.

Larry Wellikson, MD, MHM

Larry Wellikson, MD, MHM

Today, hospitals are under tough cost pressures, with changes in payments from Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurers. Many hospitals now get more than 50% of their revenue from vertical patients from what was previously considered the outpatient segment of healthcare. Physicians have moved from being revenue providers to being potential competitors or, in the best-case scenario, active partners and teammates with their hospital.

And hospitalists are right in the middle of this changing dynamic.

Because the hospital and the healthcare system are rapidly evolving, it should not surprise anyone that the very nature of hospital medicine is changing rapidly. Some would say too rapidly.

At a strategic planning session I led almost 20 years when the National Association of Inpatient Physicians (NAIP), the precursor to SHM, was just starting out, the prevailing consensus was that hospitalists might take over inpatient services for 50% of family physicians and 25% of internists. Obviously, the penetrance of hospital medicine into almost every hospital in the U.S. and the transfer of the acute-care management of most of the inpatients previously handled by family physicians and internists are just part of the growth in hospital medicine.

Even more innovative and disruptive has been the almost relentless scope creep as hospitalists now actively comanage many surgical and subspecialty patients. As the neurologists have given up most of their acute-care duties, hospitalists are now the de facto inpatient neurologists. Hospitalists also now manage the majority of inpatient senior citizens and have become the inpatient geriatricians without the formal training. In-hospital procedures (e.g., central line, ultrasound, intubation, etc.) previously done by surgeons or critical-care or primary-care physicians now are done by default by hospitalists.

But these expansions of hospitalist scope pale in comparison with the continued broadening of responsibilities that continues to stretch even the most well-trained hospitalists beyond their training or capacity.

Palliative Care

There are not enough trained and certified palliative-care physicians to allocate one of them to each hospital. Yet treatment and survival of cancer and other serious diseases as well as the aging of the population demand that hospitals be prepared to provide the most compassionate and up-to-date palliative approach possible. Palliative care is more than just end-of-life care. It involves hospice as well as pain and symptom management. It is aimed at improvement in quality of life and is used in the presence or absence of curative strategies.

Hospitalists have been thrust into the breach and are being asked more and more to provide palliative-care services. SHM has recognized the gap between the increasing demand on hospitalists and the inadequate training we all receive in residency. That’s why we’re working with palliative-care societies and experts to develop educational and training initiatives to close these gaps.

Critical Care

Our hospitals are becoming increasingly critical care intensive as simpler cases are treated as outpatients and only the very ill come to be admitted to hospital. This has created an increasing demand for more physicians trained in critical care at a time when older intensivists are retiring or going into sleep medicine and younger physicians, who might have chosen a career in critical care, are becoming hospitalists. The shortage of trained critical-care providers is reaching a crisis point in many American hospitals, with hospitalists being asked to be the critical-care extender.

Over the years, SHM has partnered with the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM) to propose innovative training options (e.g., one-year critical-care fellowship obtained midcareer), but the boards and others in the critical-care establishment have not been supportive. SHM plans to continue to work with open-minded critical-care thought leaders to develop and promote additional training in critical-care skills for hospitalists, who continue to be thrust into this role at their local hospitals.

Post-Acute Care

For many of hospital medicine’s larger national and regional companies, the management of the care in the post-acute-care space of skilled nursing facilities, long-term acute-care facilities, and the like has been the fastest-growing part of their business in the last few years. Skills and process improvement that have helped improve effectiveness and efficiency in our nation’s hospitals are being applied to post-acute-care facilities. Once again, hospitalists are finding themselves being asked to perform at a high level in environments that are new to them.

In this arena, the hospitalist’s ability to impact care is evident in managing transfers and information as well as providing leadership in patient safety. Determining the correct postdischarge disposition is the largest driver of costs in the acute-care and post-acute-care setting. Hospitalists and the hospital medicine organizations are providing key direction.

Preoperative Care

Many may not know that bundled into the anesthesia fee is the funding to cover pre-op assessment and post-op management as well as the intraoperative oversight of anesthesia and vital signs for the surgical patient. In reality, the role of perioperative management has fallen for many years initially to internists and more recently to hospitalists.

Hospitalists have been active in optimizing the patient for surgery and medically clearing the patient. Hospitalists work with surgeons to manage comorbidities; prevent complications, such as infections, DVTs, and pulmonary emboli; and help with pain management and transitions to discharge from the hospital. Hospitalists have worked with surgeons to create efficiencies like reduced length of stay and prevention of readmission as well as to help the patient return to function postoperatively.

SHM’s Perioperative Care Work Group is publishing a set of Perioperative Care Guidelines in the Journal of Hospital Medicine. SHM is actively working with the American College of Surgeons on a teamwork approach to the surgical patient as well as innovative alternative payment models with bundling at the level of the individual surgical patients, which the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services is currently evaluating.

Working through a Dilemma

The one thing all these expansions of scope have in common is that there is an unfilled need and hospitalists are being thrust onto the front lines, thrown into the deep water without the benefit of thorough training that should be requisite with the responsibilities. This is not a turf battle where we have stolen someone’s cheese. This is pure and simple where need is trumping training, and if not done properly, the patient may suffer, and hospitalists will bear the uncomfortable feeling of being asked to do more than we should.

SHM and our national hospitalist thought leaders see this dilemma. We are working diligently with other professional medical societies and key specialty educators and thought leaders to create training pathways to support the expansion of the hospitalist’s scope. This is building the boat while you are going down a rapidly moving river. It is not easy stuff. But our patients and our hospitalists demand this, and SHM will step up. Help is on the way.

Larry Wellikson, MD, MHM, is CEO of the Society of Hospital Medicine.

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