Primarily, the hospitalist is a practicing clinician — managing throughput on a case-by-case, patient-by-patient basis. In addition, a hospitalist performs a non-clinical role as an “inpatient expert,” taking the lead in creating system changes and communicating those changes to other hospital personnel as well as to community physicians. As an inpatient expert, hospitalists are often asked to lead organization-wide throughput initiatives to identify and implement strategies to facilitate patient flow and efficiency. As dedicated members of multi-disciplinary in-house teams, the hospitalist is in a prime position to foster change and improve systems.
Throughput as Continuum of Care
As suggested by Heffner (5), the process of admission, hospitalization, and discharge resembles a “bell-shaped curve.” To achieve effective throughput, hospitals must expedite patient care and also maintain careful oversight throughout a patient’s entire hospital stay. The hospitalist, as an integral part of a multidisciplinary team, coordinates care to promote a positive outcome and shorten length of stay. Drawing on strong leadership qualities, as well as on intimate knowledge of hospital procedures, layout design and infrastructure, and available community resources, the hospitalist plays a pivotal role in creating efficient throughput from admission to discharge.
At the front end of the bell-shaped curve, the hospitalist may be engaged by emergency department (ED) physicians to assist in ensuring smooth patient flow and, more important, identifies the “intensity of service” needed. Through the use of clinical criteria, such as lnterQual, the hospitalist, together with the ED physician, may be asked to quantitatively rate the patient’s illness for degree of severity.
Timely patient evaluation helps prevent a backlog of ED cases and enables more patients to be seen. Immediate attention to and initiation of appropriate therapy guarantees a better outcome while minimizing the potential risk for complications, which could possibly lead to longer inpatient stays.
Once a patient has been admitted to an inpatient unit, the hospitalist, together with a multidisciplinary team, facilitates care and determines the inpatient services that will optimize patient recovery through strong interdepartmental communications. Working together with admissions, medical records, nursing, laboratory and diagnostic services, information technology and other pertinent departments, the hospitalist maintains a pulse on all activity surrounding the patient and his care.
Judicious inpatient consultations and treatment decisions result in timely changes in therapy, potentially reducing the length of stay. The frequency with which the hospitalist sees the patient allows him to monitor any changes in condition and reduce possible decompensation, a practice known as vertical continuity (6). Such careful attention may reduce inpatient length of stay significantly. When aggressive management is mandated, the presence of the hospitalist enables initiation of effective therapy and results in quicker discharge and a reduction in potential readmission (7).
The surgeon and hospitalist are ideally suited to work together in managing a surgical patient. The hospitalist focuses on the peri-operative management of medical issues and risk reduction, which allows the surgeon to concentrate more on surgical indications and the surgery itself. The hospitalist’s role in the management of a surgical patient enables vertical continuity when the surgeon may be occupied in the operating room with another patient as documented by Huddleston’s Hospitalist Orthopedic Team (HOT) approach (8).
Intensive Care Unit (ICU)
In many hospitals, particularly those that do not have intensivists, hospitalists are able to provide quality care to patients. Even in hospitals where intensivists manage ICU patients, hospitalists work together with the intensivist to ensure smoother transition into and out of the unit.
Timing is a critical issue with regard to discharge. Since the hospitalist operates solely in-house and in collaboration with a multidisciplinary team, he is able to round early in the day to discharge patients by mid- or late-morning, freeing a bed for a new patient. In some cases, the hospitalist, in anticipation of early discharge, may begin pre-planning the day prior to discharge, which further expedites the process. Early discharge applies to the ICU, step-down areas and general inpatient care areas, as well as to full discharge from the healthcare facility. Moving a patient from one of these areas enables other patients to fill those empty beds thus optimizing throughput.