Patient safety and improved quality of care have become priority issues in the American healthcare system. The potential for medical errors was highlighted in 1999 when the Quality of Health Care in America Committee of the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published its first report, To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System. The committee estimated that between 44,000 and 98,000 people die annually from inpatient medical errors. The eighth leading cause of death in this country, preventable medical errors, cost the U.S. approximately $17 billion annually in direct and indirect costs (IOM). These alarming statistics in the IOM report ignited the patient safety movement (I).
The IOM report made a series of recommendations that included the creation of a center for patient safety, the development of a national public reporting system, the establishment of oversight agencies, and the incorporation of safety principles into monitoring systems. Public and private agencies have responded with a series of initiatives that address these recommendations (See Table 1).
One healthcare expert describes three reasons as to why the potential for medical errors has increased. First, technology has created a sophisticated array of test, x-rays, laboratory procedures, and diagnostic tools. Second, pharmaceutical research has introduced thousands of new medications to the marketplace. Finally, specialization has led to experts, both physician and non-physician, in a wide range of body systems, diseases, settings, procedures, and therapies. Hospital medicine represents a new type of medical specialty that has the potential to address this increased complexity and sophistication and to improve patient care in the hospital inpatient environment (2).
Hospitalists as Team Coordinators
To achieve maximum positive outcomes in the complex inpatient environment, a qualified coordinator must educate others and facilitate activity revolving around patient care. Hospitalists as inpatient experts possess the necessary qualifications to integrate hospital systems and maximize efforts to enhance patient safety by monitoring medication distribution, chairing pharmaceuticals and therapeutics (P&T) committees, overseeing computerized physician order entry (CPOE), directing quality/performance improvement projects, and collaborating with discharge planning and case management.
Lakshmi Halasyamani, MD, is vice chair of the department of Internal Medicine at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Michigan and chairperson of the Society of Hospital Medicine (SHM) Hospital Quality and Patient Safety Committee. She says, Hospitalists have a ‘lens of understanding the systems under which they care for patients.’ They take care of patients in the hospital every single day so they can examine the processes with which they work. Hospitalists have an ideal perspective from which to reform ineffective systems.”
In spite of all the guidelines established by federal agencies and expert groups, Dr. Halasyamani points out that implementation barriers exist that prevent well-intentioned protocols and best practices from being carried out. Part of the challenge is the performance of a critical piece of the infrastructure—the multidisciplinary team. The very nature of healthcare demands an inherent need to coordinate and communicate. “Treating the patient is not the responsibility of one single individual,” says Halasyamani. “This is a team effort. The hospitalist recognizes that he is part of that team.” By elevating the ideals of teamwork, hospitalists can deliver to the patients the essential care that patients need, both while in the hospital and after they are discharged. In managing hospital inpatients, physicians must cope with high intensity of illness, pressures to reduce length of stay (LOS), and the coordination of handoffs among many specialists. According to Halasyamani, this can be a “recipe for disaster.”
Halasyamani acknowledges the vital role of protocols in reducing medical errors and improving quality of care. The training, education, and experience a hospitalist has acquired enables him to optimize communication and implement protocols, thus facilitating the practice of delivering safe and consistent care to all patients. In fact, with this smaller core group of inpatient physicians, the development and implementation of protocols can potentially be more effective because it targets a smaller group of physicians than the traditional inpatient model (8).