At times it seems as though the solution to every problem in the medical center is for the hospitalists to do it. At the University of California at San Francisco, my hospitalist colleagues lead efforts in information technology, quality improvement, perioperative care, transfers of patients to the medical center, and chair countless medical staff committees.
SHM published a supplement (2005; vol. 9, supp. 1) to The Hospitalist detailing the ways hospitalists add value. The supplement contained articles about treating unassigned patients, leading medical staffs, providing extraordinary availability, improving resource utilization, maximizing throughput and improving patient flow, educating staff and colleagues, and improving patient safety and quality of care.
Given all these activities, it’s no wonder life as a hospitalist is busy. But these activities also add a richness and variety to work and place us at the center of the life of the hospital. As our field continues to grow, our responsibilities will continue to grow. In the years ahead, one challenge for our field will be to know when to say “no.”
At an increasing number of hospitals across the country hospitalists add value in another important way by becoming involved with starting, staffing, and using palliative care services. Hospitalists already play a central role in caring for patients with life-threatening illness by providing expert symptom management and talking with them and their families frankly and compassionately about their illness, prognosis, and preferences for care. While this opportunity to affect the care of individual patients and their families is critical, we can better improve the care of these patients by participating in and leading efforts to establish palliative care services within our institutions.
For hospitalists, the arguments that support starting a palliative care service will be familiar because they involve many of the same issues as when starting a hospitalist program. It is helpful to consider why a hospitalist would want to undertake such an endeavor and why a hospital would support it. Here are the key issues:
1) Need: Many hospitalist programs are started to care for patients for whom there was not a doctor available. While inpatients who need palliative care may already have a doctor, the same argument about need applies. Simply put, the hospital is where half of Americans die and where others with serious, chronic, and life-threatening illness spend time. If for no other reason, palliative care services, like hospitalist programs, are necessary because so many patients need this care.
2) Quality: One of the most important drivers of hospitalist programs is quality. Because hospitalists focus on the care of hospitalized patients they can develop expertise and deliver higher quality. The same holds for palliative care. Studies demonstrate widespread shortfalls in
the quality of care that seriously ill and dying patients receive.1 In addition to doing a poor job managing pain, we typically fail to elicit and respect patient preferences. Just as a hospitalist program provides clinicians focused on the care of inpatients, a palliative care team consisting of physicians, nurses, a social worker, pharmacist, and chaplain provides expertise to address the broad range of issues that arise for patients and their families in a comprehensive and high-quality way.
3) Economics: Studies show that hospitalist programs can reduce length of stay and costs at similar quality.2 While cost-cutting is never the sole reason and often not the most important reason for starting a hospitalist program, the fact that these programs can reduce costs makes them financially attractive to hospitals. Palliative care programs provide the same financial advantages, usually with improved quality.