Patient Care

Hospitalists Should Play Vital Role in Managing Diabetic Inpatients


Inpatient hyperglycemia, defined as a blood glucose greater than 140, is present in more than half of patients in intensive care units (ICUs) and approximately 30%-40% of patients in the non-ICU setting, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA).

Joshua D. Lenchus, DO, RPh, FACP, SFHM, a hospitalist and associate professor of clinical medicine and anesthesiology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, can attest to the growing problem. “Patients with diabetes are ubiquitous in our hospital,” he says. “Because I work in an urban, tertiary care, safety net teaching hospital, most of our cases are on the severe end of the acuity scale. Some arrive in full-blown diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) or hyperosmolar nonketotic hyperglycemia; others are admitted with profound fluid and electrolyte abnormalities from chronically uncontrolled diabetes.”

Caitlin Foxley, MD, FHM, an assistant professor of medicine and the lead hospitalist at Private Hospitalist Service at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, says most inpatients have at least one complication of diabetes—usually chronic kidney disease and/or circulatory complications.

Dr. Foxley

Dr. Foxley

“For us, patients of a lower socioeconomic status seem to be hospitalized more frequently with complications related to diabetes due to barriers to access of care,” she says. Barriers include difficulty obtaining supplies, particularly glucose strips and insulin, and finding transportation to appointments.

The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque is seeing more patients who are newly diagnosed with diabetes.

“Management wise, these inpatients are less complicated, but it’s alarming that we are seeing more of them,” says UNM hospitalist Kendall Rogers, MD, CPE, FACP, SFHM, a lead mentor in SHM’s glycemic control quality improvement program. “Overall inpatient management is becoming more complex: Inpatients are frequently on steroids, their nutritional intake varies, and kidney issues make glycemic control more challenging, while therapeutic options for outpatient therapies are escalating.”

Regardless of an inpatient diabetic’s status, hospitalists should play a vital role in their treatment. “Bread and butter diabetics—and even some pretty complex cases—should be owned by hospitalists,” says Dr. Rogers, who notes that more than 95% of diabetic patients at his 650-bed hospital are managed by hospitalists. “Every hospitalist should know how to treat simple to complex glycemic control in the inpatient setting.”

Dr. Rogers

Dr. Rogers

Kristen Kulasa, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine and director of inpatient glycemic control in the division of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism at the University of California San Diego, agrees, especially if no one else is on hand to help treat diabetic patients.

“Many inpatient glycemic control efforts are spearheaded by hospitalists,” she says. “They are in the driver’s seat.”

Order Sets: What Works Best?

While there is consensus that hospitalists should play a primary role in treating inpatient diabetics, debate is ongoing regarding just how standardized order sets should be.

“Each patient is different and should be treated uniquely,” Dr. Lenchus says. “But standardized order sets are beneficial. They remind us of what should be ordered, reviewed, and addressed.”

For example, order sets that address an insulin correction factor should be designed to minimize the potential for hypoglycemic episodes by standardizing the amount of insulin a patient receives. Standard order sets for DKA could assist the physician and nursing staff in ensuring that the appropriate laboratory tests are accomplished within the prescribed time period.

At Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, most order sets are designed as a collaborative effort among endocrinologists, hospitalists, nurses, and pharmacists. Some organizations, including SHM, offer order set templates.

Guillermo Umpierrez, MD, CDE, FACE, FACP, professor of medicine at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and a member of the ADA board of directors, maintains that hospitalists should work with their information technology (IT) departments to set up appropriate insulin orders.

“Most hospitals have electronic medical records, so the IT department should be involved in having a set of orders to facilitate care,” he says.

Guideline Implementation

National guidelines regarding the management of hyperglycemia in inpatients set goals and explain how to achieve them. “But they are not granular enough to simply implement,” says Paul M. Szumita, PharmD, BCPS, clinical pharmacy practice manager director at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “Goal glucose targets change slightly from organization to organization and from year to year, but how to achieve them hasn’t changed much in the past decade.”

Dr. Umpierrez

Dr. Umpierrez

To implement the recommendations from national guidelines, institutions must create guidelines and order sets to operationalize the guidelines on a local level.

“When general guidelines and order sets have been created, vetted, implemented, and assessed for efficacy and safety, then there is typically a need to create additional guidelines and order sets to capture practices not supported by the general guidelines [e.g. insulin pumps, patient self-management, peri-procedural, DKA],” Dr. Szumita says. “This approach typically requires a team of dedicated, multidisciplinary, physical champions to create, implement, assess, and refine.”

Hospitalists should be aware of recently revised guidelines for ICU and non-ICU settings. The ADA and American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists recommend using a target blood glucose between 140-180 mg/dl for most patients in the ICU and a lower range, between 110-140, for cardiovascular surgery patients. The Society of Critical Care Medicine, however, recommends a target blood glucose of less than 150 mg/dl for ICU patients.

“Both guidelines recommend careful monitoring to prevent hypoglycemia,” Dr. Umpierrez says.

In the non-ICU setting, the ADA and the Endocrine Society recommend maintaining a pre-meal blood glucose of less than 140 mg/dl and a random blood glucose of less than 180 mg/dl.1

“We provide a lot of education regarding timing and clinical assessment of the value. If a value seems like an outlier, nurses should question whether it’s an erroneous sample and if they should repeat the test or if there is a clinical scenario to explain the outlier, such as recent snack or interruption in tube feeds.”—Kristen Kulasa, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine and director of inpatient glycemic control, division of endocrinology, diabetes, and metabolism, University of California San Diego

Resolving Issues

A variety of challenges can occur in the treatment of inpatient diabetics. Here’s a look at some of the more common ones, as well as some suggested solutions.

Coordinating tasks of the care team. Ensuring that glucose levels remain acceptable at all times is perhaps the biggest challenge that involves multiple staff. “You need to coordinate the food tray’s arrival time, obtain pre-meal fingersticks, assess how much the patient eats, and administer insulin accordingly,” Dr. Kulasa says.

To ensure a smooth process, she emphasizes the importance of communication and suggests as much standardization as possible.

“Standardization will help give nurses an idea of when to expect the meal tray and, therefore, when they should obtain their point of care blood glucose test and administer the nutritional and correctional insulin,” Dr. Kulasa says. “This way they can plan their workflow accordingly.”

Listen to Dr. Kulasa explain how hospitalists can work with nutritionists and dieticians to attain glycemic control.

The University of New Mexico has found success in having nurses control every step of the process. “A nurse takes a capillary blood glucose (CBG) reading, draws up the insulin, and then delivers the meal tray,” Dr. Rogers says.

Nurses only deliver diabetic trays, which are color coded. “But other facilities, and even floors within our own hospital, have found this to be controversial because nurses don’t feel that they should be responsible for checking CBGs or delivering trays.” Perhaps adding a second person to perform steps one and three would be more acceptable to other institutions.

NPO patients awaiting tests. When patients are NPO [nil per os, or nothing by mouth], they can be at an increased risk for hypoglycemia; however, if patients are properly dosed on basal/bolus regimens, only the bolus dose should be held when they go NPO.

“Nurses must be taught not to hold basal just because a patient is NPO,” Dr. Rogers says. “However, we sometimes see institutions with an overreliance on basal insulin compared to bolus doses, to the point that the basal dose is covering some nutritional needs. This could increase risk for hypoglycemia if continuing basal insulin at full dose when NPO.”

If there is a 50-50 split between basal and bolus insulin, then it should be safe for patients to continue their full basal insulin when they’re NPO, although some institutions choose to halve this dose for patients who are NPO. Basal insulin should not be routinely held, however. Each institution should standardize its practice in these instances and write them into insulin order sets.

“We try to explain that [those inpatients newly diagnosed] must tend to their disease every day. I think we lose a lot of folks at this crucial point, and those patients end up being readmitted. In addition, their ability to obtain medications and adhere to regimens is quite difficult.”—Joshua D. Lenchus, DO, RPh, FACP, SFHM, hospitalist, associate professor of medicine and anesthesiology, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine

Monitoring and adjusting blood sugar. Dr. Rogers finds that many physicians and nurses don’t recognize high as problematic. “Often physicians don’t even list hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia as an issue in their notes, and adjustments are not made to medications on a daily basis,” he says.

Nurses perform four CBG readings on eating patients throughout the day, and patients on a basal/bolus regimen receive four doses of insulin. “Each dose of insulin is evaluated by one of these blood glucose monitoring values,” he says. “This allows for customized tailoring of a patient’s needs.”

Dr. Rogers says some hospitals administer the same insulin order three times a day with every meal. “Patients may vary in their nutritional intake, and their insulin should be customized to match,” he maintains. “There should be separate insulin orders for each meal to allow for this.”

The biggest issue related to this is that physicians don’t make changes to insulin doses on a daily basis in uncontrolled patients—which he would encourage. There are different methods to achieve this. Dr. Rogers would suggest adding up the amount of correction scale insulin the patient received the previous day and appropriately redistributing this within the scheduled basal and bolus doses.

Listen to Dr. Rogers's advice to hospitalists when working as part of a quality team in achieving glycemic control.

Endocrinologists at UC San Diego stress the importance of performing point of care blood glucose testing within 30 minutes before a meal. This is important in order to calculate an appropriate dose of correction insulin. “We provide a lot of education regarding timing and clinical assessment of the value,” Dr. Kulasa says. “If a value seems like an outlier, nurses should question whether it’s an erroneous sample and if they should repeat the test or if there is a clinical scenario to explain the outlier, such as recent snack or interruption in tube feeds.”

Medication reconciliation. A big mistake is to continue a patient’s in-hospital treatment regimen at discharge. The discharging physician should reevaluate an outbound patient, Dr. Rogers says, and prescribe treatment based on what the patient took prior to admission.

Dr. Kulasa says the inpatient team should make medication adjustments based on a patient’s hemoglobin A1c and the amount of insulin a patient required in the hospital, as well as any changes that might occur upon departure. Does the patient have an infection that’s improving? Is the patient tapering steroids at discharge? These factors should be considered when making adjustments. “We get a lot of information during the inpatient stay that we need to account for when designing an outpatient regimen,” she says.

Transitioning care to the primary care physician. Communication is key when handing off a diabetic patient to another physician. “The primary care physician needs to know what was changed and why it was changed,” Dr. Kulasa says. “Perhaps a medication was discontinued because the patient suffered acute kidney injury or a new medication was added based on an elevated hemoglobin A1c.”

UNM hospitalists request that new diabetics and patients with a hemoglobin A1c greater than 10 visit the hospital’s diabetes clinic within a week of discharge to allow for further titration of their disease.

“I recommend that each hospital have a plan to handle new diabetics and patients who are out of control,” Dr. Rogers says.

Patient Education. When patients are hospitalized without a prior diagnosis of diabetes and leave diagnosed with diabetes, they are discharged with a number of prescriptions, follow-up appointments, and lifestyle instructions. “We try to explain that they must tend to their disease every day,” Dr. Lenchus says. “I think we lose a lot of folks at this crucial point, and those patients end up being readmitted. In addition, their ability to obtain medications and adhere to regimens is quite difficult.”

As a potential solution, a robust discharge counseling session should occur. “Medications should be reviewed, appointments explained, and lifestyle modifications underscored,” Dr. Lenchus says.

On a similar note, Dr. Foxley finds it challenging to manage discharged patients who go home on insulin for the first time. “Plan ahead and begin the education process at least several days in advance, or you’ll set up a patient to fail,” she says.

Karen Appold is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania.

Balancing Act: Learn How to Work with Specialists on Diabetes Cases

One approach does not work for all hospitals and hospitalists when working with specialists or endocrinologists to treat patients with diabetes.

“The relationship depends on the environment and the availability of specialists,” Dr. Kulasa says. “Some hospitals—like ours—have inpatient endocrinologists, while others have outpatient endocrinologists who come in to see certain patients.”

If a hospital has specialists on staff, Dr. Kulasa suggests having a low threshold for consultation, especially when a hospitalist feels uncomfortable in treating a complex patient. Such situations may involve Type 1 diabetes, which can be difficult to control in the hospital setting; treating a patient on an insulin pump or on specialized insulin; tending to a patient with brittle/labile glucose levels; or managing a patient on steroids or one who requires several medications.

“These situations can all be particularly challenging,” Dr. Kulasa says. “A hospitalist should feel free to ask for help. The focus should be on the best utilization of resources and trying to make everyone as efficient as possible while also improving patient care.”

Furthermore, Dr. Kulasa says that even if a hospitalist is comfortable with insulin dosing or diabetes education, perhaps his or her time is better spent elsewhere.

“Simply consulting an endocrinologist doesn’t necessarily suggest that treating a patient is out of your comfort zone,” she says. “You simply may not have enough time to do it, given more pressing matters.”

Taking matters a step a further, Dr. Rogers advises having specific criteria for when endocrinologists should become involved in treating diabetic patients. “Consult endocrinologists to create some type of agreement at each institution regarding this,” he says.

Dr. Umpierrez, of the American Diabetes Association, believes that hospitalists and endocrinologists should work together in setting up insulin infusion orders for the management of hyperglycemia and diabetes. “All hospitals should have written [and up-to-date] protocols,” he says. “If possible, hospitals should have protocols for managing diabetic ketoacidosis and hyperosmolar states, which are associated with high morbidity and mortality, as well.

“In addition, hospitals should have nonintensive care unit order sets to facilitate care and reduce risk of errors and hypoglycemia.”—KA

Diabetes: A Serious Problem Worsening

The number of individuals with diabetes has reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. In 2012, 29.1 million Americans, or 9.3% of the population, had diabetes. Of the 29.1 million, 21 million were diagnosed and 8.1 million were undiagnosed, according to the American Diabetes Association.

In 2010, these figures were somewhat lower, at 25.8 million and 8.3%, respectively. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans aged 65 and older with diabetes remains high, at 25.9% or 11.8 million seniors—both diagnosed and undiagnosed. The rate was 26.9% in 2010.2

“It’s everywhere, it’s getting worse, and the problem isn’t going to go away anytime soon,” says Dr. Kulasa, who attributes the growing epidemic to unhealthy diets, increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and genetics. “One-quarter to one-third of inpatients have diabetes. It’s something you will see no matter what specialty you’re in. Therefore, it’s important to feel comfortable with treating diabetes.”

In August 2014, a study published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology reported that of U.S. children born between 2000 and 2011, 40% will develop diabetes during their lifetime.3

“That is alarming,” says Dr. Rogers, who foresees hospitalists seeing more glycemic control issues that will be more difficult to control.—KA


  1. Umpierrez GE, Hellman R, Korytkowski MT, et al. Management of hyperglycemia in hospitalized patients in non-critical care setting: an endocrine society clinical practice guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2012;97(1):16-38.
  2. American Diabetes Association. Statistics About Diabetes: Data from the National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2014 (released June 10, 2014). Available at: Accessed October 5, 2014.
  3. Gregg EW, Zhuo X, Cheng YJ, Albright AL, Narayan KMV, Thompson TJ. Trends in lifetime risk and years of life lost due to diabetes in the USA, 1985—2011: a modelling study. The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology. Available at: Accessed October 5, 2014.

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