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Return of the Master Detectives


While many of you associate me with hospital medicine and SHM, this is only my latest incarnation. For more than 15 years I was a practicing solo general internist in Southern California. You remember me as one of those local medical doctors (LMDs), who stopped by the hospital on the way to their office in the tall office building next to the community hospital where they worked from 9-12 and 2-5 and then went back to the hospital to see admissions and do consults for surgeons.

Right out of training in the 1970s I was the complete internist. I managed my own vents, did my own lumbar punctures, bone marrows, and arterial lines. I prided myself on being well versed in enough of the medical specialties that I was my own internal consultant and the first line of consultation and advice for local surgeons and family practitioners (FPs).

I should also reveal that I played a role first on the board of directors of the American Society of Internal Medicine (ASIM) and then on the board of regents of the American College of Physicians (ACP). I was in the vicinity when RBRVS (resource based relative value system) was born and when internists devolved into gatekeepers and primary care physicians.

I saw the internist as the master detective, but somehow we were recast as the cop on the beat very much on the front lines. From solving the great mysteries we were now settling domestic squabbles and writing traffic tickets. OK we were filling out forms for durable medical goods and writing prescriptions for antidepressants.

General internal medicine had a chance to define itself as comprising physicians who were master diagnosticians, the only doctors capable of handling the complexities of comorbidities, especially in the aging population. Instead of seizing terrain that was so uniquely geared to internal medicine training and experience, internists decided to compete with FPs and nurse practitioners (NPs) to be the traffic cop for resource use and burgeoning specialization.

I fear if internal medicine is not reinvented immediately, it will cease to exist. And that will be very bad for our patients, and not particularly a good thing for those who should have been internists and who end up being dermatologists.

Internal medicine has always been at a monetary disadvantage to the technospecialties of procedures and gadgets. But at least in the pre-primary care physician (PCP) world, internists could boast they were the “doctors’ doctors,” ready to take on the difficult and the complex. When we cast our lots with the gatekeepers, we became pieceworkers and paper shufflers. We made the excitement of internal medicine—the use of our skills of diagnosis and information integration—something to be avoided because of their very complexity. We created a situation in which the patients who most needed our services were disadvantageous in a world that devalued our training and wanted us to be more like the practical and efficient NPs.

Hospital medicine has come along to tap into the skills of internal medicine in the acute care setting. Hospital medicine strips away the PCP and gatekeeper functions, leaving us with the core of what drew many of us to internal medicine in the first place. As hospital medicine attempts to evolve into what the health system and our patients need, there are glimpses of what a “new” internist might be.

Clinical knowledge and bedside skills are still in demand. The ability to integrate information and see through complexity to formulate a diagnostic plan and a treatment protocol still define internal medicine. But the skills for the 21st-century internists now include data collection, quality improvement, systems analysis, teamwork, management, and leadership.

Hospitalists have no choice but to develop these skills. Working in the hospital, which is evolving to a new institution in real time, hospitalists must provide leadership and be part of a functioning team that can measure their work product and devise ways of making it better. This accountability to our patients and our community is essential and will happen with or without us.

But these same skills are needed for the majority of healthcare that occurs outside the walls of the hospital. The gift of today’s technology and treatments is the fact that people who previously would have died have been saved, and many who were treated as inpatients are now managed even better as outpatients. In many ways, my generation—the baby boomers—as consumers of healthcare expect to have our key physicians be not so much the magician who snatches us out of extremis at the height of acuity, but to have the knowledge and skills to see us in all of our aging and complexity and to partner with us to keep us well and functional for a very long time.

There is an opportunity to reposition internal medicine into a new status of power and influence based on a revised set of skills and performance. It is time to create the value proposition and then reset the reimbursement system and not the other way around. While the eventual “buyers” of this value will be the senior citizens, the first people we need to influence are medical students (i.e., potential future internists) and the purchasers of healthcare (i.e., business and government)

Here is the pitch to a world with an aging population that has an average of five diagnoses and six medications and a burgeoning array of diagnostic and treatment options—many of which are both expensive with an uneven proposition that they are cost effective: Internists will leave the routine primary care practice to others. Instead internal medicine will reinvent itself to be the doctors who want to see the highly complex patients and coordinate their care. We will have a broad knowledge so patients won’t need to necessarily be shunted to three or four specialists, but if a patient needs specialized care beyond our scope, we will know where to send them, and more importantly we will be prepared to take back the complex patient and manage them continuously over time.

We will be accountable. We will measure our performance, but more importantly we will take a leadership role in setting standards and implementing quality improvement. We understand we may be less than perfect initially, but we pledge to be better in three months—and three months after that. Because so much of healthcare requires multiple perspectives and support, we will be the leaders in developing teams of health professionals.

Internal medicine will once again be important and relevant—to medical students, to other health professionals, and to our patients. We will be central to the evolution of healthcare because the skills of measurement, information management, quality improvement, working in teams, and leadership are what everyone wants, and no one specialty has been seized as their own. This is tough stuff and it is under-rewarded by our current system of payment.

If we have learned anything it is that the work is the reward and leads to career satisfaction, and that there is little correlation between compensation and happiness for physicians.

I fear if internal medicine is not reinvented immediately, it will cease to exist. And that will be very bad for our patients and not particularly a good thing for those who should have been internists and end up being dermatologists. TH

Dr. Wellikson has been CEO of SHM since 2000.

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