When Robert Lee, MD, an internist affiliated with Iowa Health Physicians, a multi-specialty group in Des Moines, was called to the hospital to see one of his patients, he faced a 50-minute round trip plus additional time to find a parking place and catch an elevator before reaching the inpatient unit. In the time it took for him to see a couple of his patients in the hospital, he could have treated five patients in the office (1).
David McAtee, MD, an osteopath at Murdock Family Medicine, a group practice of eight family physicians in Port Charlotte, Florida, estimates its doctors were spending 30% of their time at the hospital caring for only 5% of their patients (2).
With an eye toward enhancing their office practices and offering patients efficient and effective inpatient treatment, both the Des Moines and Port Charlotte medical groups pursued a growing trend in the health care industry: they turned to hospitalists. Lee notes that the change allows him to enjoy a more normal lifestyle with his family and enhances his income (1). The Murdock group’s decision to contract with hospitalists in 2003 resulted in an expansion of office hours. With more available time, the group is in the process of developing a series of programs targeting various diseases as a means of educating patients in better self-care. Additionally, McAtee expresses the hope that medical malpractice insurance premiums will decrease as a result of less time spent on inpatient care (2).
Hospitalist Impact on Primary Care Physicians
Primary care physicians (PCPs) do have reservations regarding the involvement of hospitalists in the care of their patients. Some PCPs voice concerns about the potential reduction in income if they opt to use hospitalists. According to one estimate, primary care doctors may incur an average annual decrease in income of $25,000 by forgoing hospital rounds. However, studies indicate that PCPs have the potential to earn as much as $50,000 more by spending time in the office instead of seeing inpatients (3). Hospitalist programs that offer on-site, 24-hour availability provide other benefits. When a crisis strikes, PCPs may be difficult to reach as they are seeing office patients. The hurricanes that hit Florida in September and October 2004 clearly demonstrated the value of having continuous inpatient care by qualified physicians already at the hospital. Treacherous weather conditions prevented PCPs from driving to the hospital to see their patients. Although the hospital was unable to perform lab tests, surgeries, or diagnostic imaging procedures owing to power outages, hospitalists were already on-site and stabilized patients with their basic clinical skills (3). Patients who may not have heard of the term “hospitalist” were pleased that a physician was available to answer questions, address unexpected medical issues, and offer immediate support and comfort.
Admittedly, not all PCPs have embraced the hospitalist model. The perception that they might lose skill and prestige by giving up inpatient visits might prevent them from utilizing hospitalist services. In some cases, PCPs might perceive a reduction in continuity of care. These concerns are valid and warrant consideration. However, a well-run hospitalist program will keep communication lines open between hospitalists and PCPs, so that patients receive optimal care as both inpatients and outpatients.
Hospitalists and Surgeons/Specialists
Robert T. Trousdale, MD, orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, spends most of his day in the operating room or evaluating patients for surgery. An expert in hip and knee surgery, he admits that many orthopedic surgeons have insufficient knowledge when it comes to treating some of the common medical problems that may occur postoperatively. “Hospitalists help us co-manage patients in this area. They bring an increased level of experience to the management of the patient,” he says. Trousdale notes the added benefits of time and hospitalist availability.