I think every hospitalist group should diligently try to maximize hospitalist-patient continuity, but many seem to adopt schedules and other operational practices that erode it. Let’s walk through the issue of continuity, starting with some history.
Inpatient Continuity in Old Healthcare System
Proudly carrying a pager nearly the size of a loaf of bread and wearing a white shirt and pants with Converse All Stars, I served as a hospital orderly in the 1970s. This position involved things like getting patients out of bed, placing Foley catheters, performing chest compressions during codes, and transporting the bodies of the deceased to the morgue. I really enjoyed the work, and the experience serves as one of my historical frames of reference for how hospital care has evolved since then.
The way I remember it, nearly everyone at the hospital worked a predictable schedule. RN staffing was the same each day; it didn’t vary based on census. Each full-time RN worked five shifts a week, eight hours each. Most or all would work alternate weekends and would have two compensatory days off during the following work week. This resulted in terrific continuity between nurse and patient, and the long length of stays meant patients and nurses got to know one another really well.
Continuity Takes a Hit
But things have changed. Nurse-patient continuity seems to have declined significantly as a result of two main forces: the hospital’s efforts to reduce staffing costs by varying nurse staffing to match daily patient volume, and nurses’ desire for a wide variety of work schedules. Asking a bedside nurse in today’s hospital whether the patient’s confusion, diarrhea, or appetite is meaningfully different today than yesterday typically yields the same reply. “This is my first day with the patient; I’ll have to look at the chart.”
I couldn’t find many research articles or editorials regarding hospital nurse-patient continuity from one day to the next. But several researchers seem to have begun studying this issue and have recently published a proposed framework for assessing it, and I found one study showing it wasn’t correlated with rates of pressure ulcers.1,2.
My anecdotal experience tells me continuity between the patient and caregivers of all stripes matters a lot. Research will be valuable in helping us to better understand its most significant costs and benefits, but I’m already convinced “Continuity is King” and should be one of the most important factors in the design of work schedules and patient allocation models for nurses and hospitalists alike.
While some might say we should wait for randomized trials of continuity to determine its importance, I’m inclined to see it like the authors of “Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials.” As a ding against those who insist on research data when common sense may be sufficient, they concluded “…that everyone might benefit if the most radical protagonists of evidence-based medicine organised and participated in a double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled, crossover trial of the parachute.3
Continuity and Hospitalists
On top of what I see as erosion in nurse-patient continuity, the arrival of hospitalists disrupted doctor-patient continuity across the inpatient and outpatient setting. While there was significant concern about this when our field first took off in the 1990s, it seems to be getting a great deal less attention over the last few years. In many hospitalist groups I work with, it is one of the last factors considered when creating a work schedule. Factors that are examined include the following: