Practice Economics

Geographic Rounding of Hospital Nurses Challenges Unit-Based Theory


Nurses, of course, have always been assigned by unit—that is, geographically. So it should come as no surprise that searching “unit-based” at returns many articles about assigning hospitalists geographically, but not nurses, partly because few would consider it a new idea. But this article is about a new wrinkle in assigning nurses.

Although there likely are a number of hospitals doing something similar, I’ll describe a place I was lucky enough to see up close.

Bassett Medical Center

On a cold day last December, I was part of a team that spent a few days in Cooperstown, N.Y. This is a place that is so pretty that I didn’t immediately recognize we had arrived at the Bassett Medical Center Campus, since the entrance we used looked more like a library topped by a pretty cupola and warmly decorated for the holidays. We met so many nice people, including Kai Mebust, MD, FHM, who I’m convinced works full-time for the local Chamber of Commerce and tourism industry. If he doesn’t, then they should put him on their payroll.

Not long after our arrival, Dr. Mebust led us outside in the winter air without our coats to see the very beautiful view from the patio adjacent to the hospital cafeteria. And before we left for home he climbed in our car to direct us on a tour of the town. I’m sold. What a beautiful place. So much more than the Baseball Hall of Fame for which Cooperstown is known.

When not promoting his town’s tourism or enthusiastically describing his eighth-grade son playing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans, he seems to find time to serve as the chief of this academic hospital’s hospital medicine practice. He was the principal engineer of the geographic assignment of nurses and describes it with an enthusiasm that matches his service as tour guide.

(click for larger image) Figure 1. Results of survey on geographic rounding

(click for larger image)Figure 1. Results of survey on geographic rounding

Geographic Care: Single RN Caring for Five Adjacent Patients

The idea is simple and best described using an illustration. A single nurse cares for five patients in adjacent rooms referred to as a “pod.” A second nurse is responsible for the next pod of five consecutive patients, and a single hospitalist cares for all 10 in both pods. There are currently four pods on a single floor of 36 beds; however, they hope to expand this system to most of the medical-surgical beds in the hospital.

The nurses eligible to care for patients in these pods are all trained to be able to provide “step down” level of care, meaning patients don’t need to transfer to a different location for more frequent monitoring and such therapies as vasopressors, mask ventilation, and the like.

Each hospitalist caring for two pods of 10 adjacent patients will typically have additional patients in other locations. This is the hospital’s way of finding the sweet spot between the competing interests of “load leveling” patient volume across hospitalists and rigidly assigning each doctor to a single location, though if they succeed in expanding the model through most of the hospital, the hospitalists will likely need to figure out how to assign themselves more rigidly to three or four pods.

Additional Components

Each morning, the hospitalist meets with the two pod nurses. They briefly discuss overnight events and plans for the day.

Much later in the morning, they also conduct daily multidisciplinary rounds involving nurse, case manager, pharmacist, dietician, social worker, respiratory therapist, and hospitalist. These follow a standard format, which is posted on the wall, and are done in a workroom that allows most participants to be in front of a computer, so they can enter notes and orders into the electronic health record (EHR) as they discuss patients.

What Is the Big Deal Here?

A lot of smart people have developed and written about systems that assign hospitalists geographically, but in most cases this has not been accompanied by adjustments in the way nurses are assigned. On nursing units at most hospitals, this means that even if a hospitalist has all of her patients on the same floor, she is still interacting with five to seven nurses caring for her patients. That usually means the hospitalist and nurse have less awareness of each other’s thinking and doing than if the ratio is reduced to no more than three or four nurses for a single hospitalist.

Dr. Mebust provided a document enumerating the goals for the program:

  • Improve communication;
  • Reduce patient bed moves;
  • Improve patient and staff satisfaction; and
  • Provide more efficient care as measured in time-of-discharge, decreased physician time-per-patient, and possibly length of stay.

Because of a number of problems teasing out the effects of this program and its limited duration to this point, Dr. Mebust and staff can’t provide robust statistics to document success in these goals. But anecdotal information is very encouraging, and clearly the nurses love it.

A major barrier to assigning nurses based rigidly on patients in adjacent rooms is the inability to ensure that each nurse has a workload of roughly equivalent complexity, but they’ve found this is a much less significant problem than feared. The nurse I spoke with said any risk of ending up with unusually complex and time-consuming patients is essentially offset by the efficiency gained by having the same attending hospitalist for all of her patients.

In fact, the nurses love it so much that they much prefer being assigned to a pod rather than a traditional assortment of patients with different attending physicians, even if the latter offers a chance to address uneven acuity.

The Big Picture

I’ve often wished that I could incorporate into hospitalist work some of the efficient ways a doctor and nurse can work together seeing scheduled patients in an outpatient setting. Surely assigning hospitalists geographically does this to some degree and has a number of advantages that others have written about. But it comes at the cost of difficult tradeoffs for hospitalists, and I know of many groups that have abandoned it after concluding that the challenges of the system exceeded its benefits.

But when it is coupled with assigning nurses geographically, I think the benefits are even greater, not only for the hospitalists, but also for patients, nurses, and other hospital staff.

Next time you’re in Cooperstown, be sure you don’t just visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. Look up Dr. Mebust, Komron Ostovar, MD, and their colleagues at Bassett Medical Center. I betcha you’ll be persuaded to see the value of their geographic model.

And maybe you’ll even fall so far under the spell of how they all talk about where they work and live that you’ll be ready to move there and join them.

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

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