Practice Economics

Rapid-Response Teams Help Hospitalists Manage Non-Medical Distress


A team that could respond quickly to social and behavioral concerns—and not medical issues per se—would have tremendous benefits for patients and caregivers.

I think there has been a steady increase, over the last 20 years or so, in the number of very unhappy, angry, or misbehaving patients (e.g. abusive/threatening to staff). In some cases, the hospital and caregivers have failed the patient. In other cases, their frustration arises out of things outside the hospital’s direct control, such as Medicare observation status, or perhaps the patient or family is just unreasonable or suffering from a psychiatric or substance abuse disorder.

I’m not talking about the common occurrence of a disappointed patient or family who might calmly complain about something. Instead, I want to focus on those patients who, whether we perceive them as justifiably unhappy or not, are so angry that they become very time consuming and distressing to deal with. Maybe they shout about how their lawyer will be suing us and the newspaper will be writing a story about how awful we are. Or they shout and throw things, and staff become afraid of them.

In my May 2013 column, I discussed care plans for patients like this who are admitted frequently, but such plans are not sufficient in every case.

A Haphazard Approach

Most hospitals have an informal process of dealing with these patients; it starts with the bedside nurse and/or doctor trying to apologize or make adjustments to satisfy and calm the patient. If that fails, then perhaps the manager of the nursing unit gets involved. Others may be recruited, such as someone from the hospital’s risk management or “patient advocate” departments and hospital executives such as the CNO, CMO, or CEO. Sometimes several of these people may meet as a group in an effort to come up with a plan to address the situation. But, most institutions do not have a clear and consistent approach to this important work, so the hospital personnel involved end up “reinventing the wheel” each time.

The growing awareness that hospital personnel don’t seem to have a robust and confident approach to addressing this type of situation can increase a patient’s distress, and it may embolden some to become even more demanding or threatening.

And all of this takes a significant toll on bedside caregivers, who often spend so much time dealing with the angry patient that they have less time to devote to other patients, who are in turn at least a little more likely to become unhappy or suffer as a result of a distressed and busy caregiver.

A Consistent Approach: RRT for Non-Medical Distress

I think the potential benefit for patients and caregivers is significant enough that hospitals should develop a standardized approach to managing such patients, and rapid response teams (RRTs) could serve as a model. To be clear, I’m not advocating that RRTs add management of very angry or distressed patients to their current role. Let’s call it an “RRT for non-medical distress.” And, while I think it is a worthwhile idea, and I am in the early steps of trying to develop it at “my” hospital, I’m not aware of any such team in place anywhere now.

For example, the team members could include two nursing unit directors, a risk manager, a patient advocate (or patient satisfaction “czar”), a psychiatrist, the hospitalist medical director, the chief medical officer, and a few other individuals selected for their communication skills.

To make it practical, I think this team should be available only during weekday business hours and would comprise something like six to 10 people with clinical backgrounds who do mostly administrative work. For example, the team members could include two nursing unit directors, a risk manager, a patient advocate (or patient satisfaction “czar”), a psychiatrist, the hospitalist medical director, the chief medical officer, and a few other individuals selected for their communication skills.

One of the team members would be on call for a day or week at a time and would carry the team’s pager during business hours. Any hospital caregiver could send a page requesting the team’s assistance, and the on-call team member would respond immediately by phone or, if possible, in person. After the on-call team member’s initial assessment, the whole team would meet later the same day or early the next day. On most days, a few members of the team would be off and unable to attend the meeting. So, if the team has eight members, each meeting of the team might average about five participants.

Non-Medical Distress RRT Processes

When meeting to establish a plan for addressing an extraordinarily distressed patient/family, the team should follow a standardized written approach. A designated person should lead the conversation—perhaps the on-call team member who responded first—and another should take notes. Using a form developed for this purpose, the note-taker would capture a standardized data set that is likely to be useful in determining a course of action, as well as valuable in helping the team fine-tune its approach by reviewing trends in aggregate data. The form might include things like patient demographics; the patient’s complaints and demands; potential complicating patient issues such as substance abuse, psychoactive drugs, or psychiatric history; location in the hospital; and names of bedside caregivers. Every effort should be made to keep the meetings efficient and as brief as practical—typically 30-60 minutes.

I’m convinced that when deciding how to respond to the situation, the team should try to limit itself to choosing one or more of eight to 10 standard interventions, rather than aiming for an entirely customized response in every case. Among the standardized interventions:

  • Service recovery tools, such as a handwritten apology letter;
  • A meeting between the patient/family and the hospital CEO or CMO;
  • Security guard(s) at the door, on “high alert” to help if called; or
  • A behavioral contract specifying the expectations for both patient and hospital staff behavior.

You might think of additional “tools” this team could have in their standardized response set.

Why limit the team as much as possible to a small set of standardized interventions? Developing customized responses in each situation is time consuming and, arguably, has a higher risk of failure, since it will be difficult to ensure that all staff caring for the patient can understand and execute them effectively. And the small set of interventions will make it easier to track their effectiveness over multiple patients so that the whole process can be improved over time.

Set a High Bar

The team should not be activated for every unhappy or difficult patient; that would be overkill and would result in many activations requiring dedicated staff with no other duties to serve on the team each day. Instead, I think the team should be activated only for the most difficult and distressing cases, at least for the first few years. In a 300-bed hospital, this would be approximately one to 1.5 activations per week.

Bedside caregivers would likely feel some reassurance knowing that they can reliably get help managing the most difficult patients, and, if the plan is executed well, these patients may get care that is safer for both themselves and staff. Who knows, medical outcomes might be improved for these patients also.

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

Next Article:

   Comments ()