Practice Economics

Poor Continuity of Patient Care Increases Work for Hospitalist Groups




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.

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.

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:

  • Solely for provider convenience, a group might regularly schedule a provider for only two or three consecutive daytime shifts, or sometimes only single days;
  • Groups that use unit-based hospital (a.k.a. “geographic”) staffing might have a patient transfer to a different attending hospitalist solely as a result of moving to a room in a different nursing unit; and
  • As part of morning load leveling, some groups reassign existing patients to a new hospitalist.

I think all groups should work hard to avoid doing these things. And while I seem to be a real outlier on this one, I think the benefits of a separate daytime hospitalist admitter shift are not worth the cost of having different doctors always do the admission and first follow-up visit. Most groups should consider moving the admitter into an additional rounder position and allocating daytime admissions across all hospitalists.

One study found that hospitalist discontinuity was not associated with adverse events, and another found it was associated with higher length of stay for selected diagnoses.4,5 But there is too little research to draw hard conclusions. I’m convinced poor continuity increases the possibility of handoff-related errors, likely results in lower patient satisfaction, and increases the overall work of the hospitalist group, because more providers have to take the time to get to know the patient.

Although there will always be some tension between terrific continuity and a sustainable hospitalist lifestyle—a person can work only so many consecutive days before wearing out—every group should thoughtfully consider whether they are doing everything reasonable to maximize continuity. After all, continuity is king.

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 [email protected].


  1. Stifter J, Yao Y, Lopez KC, Khokhar A, Wilkie DJ, Keenan GM. Proposing a new conceptual model and an exemplar measure using health information technology to examine the impact of relational nurse continuity on hospital-acquired pressure ulcers. ANS Adv Nurs Sci. 2015;38(3):241-251.
  2. Stifter J, Yao Y, Lodhi MK, et al. Nurse continuity and hospital-acquired pressure ulcers: a comparative analysis using an electronic health record “big data” set. Nurs Res. 2015;64(5):361-371.
  3. Smith GC, Pell JP. Parachute use to prevent death and major trauma related to gravitational challenge: systematic review of randomised controlled trials. BMJ. 2003;327(7429):1459-1461.
  4. O’Leary KJ, Turner J, Christensen N, et al. The effect of hospitalist discontinuity on adverse events. J Hosp Med. 2015;10(3):147-151.
  5. Epstein K, Juarez E, Epstein A, Loya K, Singer A. The impact of fragmentation of hospitalist care on length of stay. J Hosp Med. 2010;5(6):335-338.

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