Public Policy

Hospitalists Lead Efforts To Reduce Care Costs, Improve Patient Care


In 2015, reimbursement for physicians in large groups is subject to a value modifier that takes into account the cost and quality of services performed under the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule. By 2017, the modifier will apply to all physicians participating in fee-for-service Medicare.

It’s one more way the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the federal government are attempting to tip the scales on skyrocketing healthcare costs. Their end goal is a focus on better efficiency and less waste in the healthcare system.

But in an environment of top-down measures, hospitalists on the front lines are leading the charge to reduce overuse and overtreatment, slow cost growth, and improve both the quality of care and outcomes for their patients.

“I think the hospitalist movement has prided itself on quality improvement and patient safety in the hospital,” says Chris Moriates, MD, assistant clinical professor in the division of hospital medicine at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and co-creator of the cost awareness curriculum for UCSF’s internal medicine residents. “Over the last few years…they are more focused and enthusiastic about looking at value.”

Dr. Moriates leads the UCSF hospitalist division’s High Value Care Committee and is director of implementation initiatives at Costs of Care. He’s also part of a UCSF program that invites all employees to submit ideas for cutting waste in the hospital while maintaining or improving patient care quality. Last year, the winning project tackled unnecessary blood transfusions and at the same time realized $1 million in savings due to lower transfusion rates. This year, the hospital will focus on decreasing money spent on surgical supplies, potentially saving millions of dollars, he says.

A 2012 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) estimates wasteful spending costs the U.S. healthcare system at least $600 billion and potentially more than a trillion dollars annually due to such issues as care coordination and care delivery failures and overtreatment.1 Numerous studies also indicate overtreatment can lead to patient harm.2

“Say a patient gets a prophylactic scan for abdominal pain,” says Vineet Arora, MD, MAPP, a hospitalist on faculty in the University of Chicago’s department of medicine and director of education initiatives for Costs of Care. “The patient gets better, but an incidental finding of the scan is a renal mass. Now, there is a work-up of that mass, the patient gets a biopsy, and they have a bleed. A lot of testing leads to more testing, and more testing can lead to harm.”

The goal will be, as we move to bundled payment and population health approaches, to minimize the time patients spend in the hospitals and limit the growth curve in spending on the hospital side. We are doing this and not taking on financial risk.

—LeRoi S. Hicks, MD, MPH

Doing less is often better, says John Bulger, DO, MBA, SFHM, chief quality officer for the Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa. Dr. Bulger, who has led SHM’s participation in the Choosing Wisely campaign, cites a September 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine, in which Christiana Care Health System—an 1,100-bed tertiary care center in northern Delaware—built best practice telemetry guidelines into its electronic ordering system to help physicians determine when monitoring was appropriate.3 The health system also assembled multidisciplinary teams, which identified when medications warranted telemetry, and equipped nurses with tools to determine when telemetry should be stopped.

Appropriate use of telemetry is one of SHM’s five Choosing Wisely recommendations for adult patient care.

In addition to an overall 70% reduction in telemetry use without negative impact to patient safety, Christiana Care saved $4.8 million. Throughout its inpatient units, Christiana Care utilizes a multidisciplinary team approach to coordinate patient care. Daily rounds are attended by hospitalists, nurses, pharmacists, case managers, social workers, and others to ensure timely and appropriate patient care. The health system’s Value Institute evaluates hospital efforts and assesses process design to improve efficiency and, ultimately, outcomes.

“This is preparing for war in a time of peace, essentially,” says LeRoi S. Hicks, MD, MPH, a hospitalist, researcher, and educator at Christiana Care. “The goal will be, as we move to bundled payment and population health approaches, to minimize the time patients spend in the hospitals and limit the growth curve in spending on the hospital side. We are doing this and not taking on financial risk.”

Dr. Hicks adds that in its most simple form the project “reduces variation in the care we deliver” while improving efficiency and outcomes.

For many physicians, the best way to start is to begin a dialogue with patients who might also be at risk of financial harm due to unnecessary care, Dr. Arora says. “Patients are willing to change their minds and go with the more affordable and more evidence-based treatment and forgo expensive ones if they have that conversation,” she says.

Many resources exist for physicians interested in driving the frontline charge to improve healthcare quality and value. The Costs of Care curriculum provides training and tools for physicians at, as do SHM’s Center for Quality Innovation and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Dr. Moriates and Dr. Arora also have co-authored a book, along with Neel Shah, MD, founder and executive director of Costs of Care, called “Understanding Value Based Healthcare.” The book will be available this spring.

“We shouldn’t sit by the side of the road waiting for things to pass by,” Dr. Arora says. “I think the key is, we know the needle is shifting in Washington, we know system innovation models are being tested. It would be silly for us to say we’re going to continue the status quo and not look at ways to contribute as physicians.”

Kelly April Tyrrell is a freelance writer in Madison, Wis.

SHM convened a subcommittee of representatives from its Hospital Quality and Patient Safety Committee to consider 150 Choosing Wisely submissions from SHM committee members. These were narrowed down, ranked, and sent to all SHM members in a survey. Five evidence-based suggestions were adopted for adult patients. The recommendations are:

  1. Don’t place, or leave in place, urinary catheters for incontinence or convenience or monitoring of output for non-critically ill patients (acceptable indications: critical illness, obstruction, hospice, peri-operatively for <2 days for urologic procedures; use weights instead to monitor diuresis).
  2. Don’t prescribe medication for stress ulcer prophylaxis to medical inpatients unless at high risk for GI complications.
  3. Avoid transfusions of red bloods cells for arbitrary hemoglobin or hematocrit thresholds and in the absence of symptoms of active coronary disease, heart failure, or stroke.
  4. Don’t order continuous telemetry monitoring outside of the ICU without using a protocol that governs continuation.
  5. Don’t perform repetitive CBC and chemistry testing in the face of clinical and lab stability.

Choosing Wisely is an initiative of the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation to advocate for open dialogue between healthcare providers and patients to ensure appropriate care delivery at the right time.

—Kelly April Tyrrell


  1. Berwick DM, Hackbarth AD. Eliminating waste in US health care. JAMA. 2012;307(14):1513-1516.
  2. Morgan DJ, Wright SM, Dhruva S. Update on medical overuse. JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(1):120-124.
  3. Dressler R, Dryer MM, Coletti C, Mahoney D, Doorey AJ. Altering overuse of cardiac telemetry in non-intensive care unit settings by hardwiring the use of American Heart Association guidelines. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(11):1852-1854.

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