The hospitalist movement is going Down Under: In a pilot program starting in January 2007, 20 hospitalists will begin working in 11 Australian hospitals as the country tries to adapt to the new realities of healthcare. The move reflects an ongoing debate in Australia concerning the best way to confront the challenges facing many developed nations in the 21st century: how to provide hospital care to an aging patient population that is growing sicker as medical costs skyrocket.
Currently, Australia, like the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries, has a consultant-led medical system in which a specialist, or consultant, admits a patient and “owns” that individual for the duration of his or her hospital stay. The patient’s day-to-day care generally falls to a senior resident (or registrar) and a junior physician—both of whom consult with the supervising physician on rounds. In the meantime, little attention is paid to standardized indications and protocols for admission and discharge, and many observers complain about the lack of coordination and organization of care and patient flow.1
“In some cases, patient flow through our system can be disjointed, leading to delays in care and frustration from patients and staff,” says Katherine McGrath, MD, deputy director of General Health System Performance in New South Wales (NSW) Health, whose department is overseeing the pilot study. “We believe a new role, like that of the hospitalist, will fill the gap between the current non-clinical time requirements and patient needs.”
Others in Australia agree. “What we’re looking for is a senior presence in the hospital who can provide continuity of care,” says William Lancashire, MD, acting director of intensive care at Port Macquarie Base Hospital in Port Macquarie, NSW.
Rural care is another concern. Currently, 34% of all Australians and 70% of Australian aborigines live outside major urban centers and depend on “bush” hospitals when they become ill. Yet only 23% of medical specialists and 27% of general practitioners work in these remote areas.2 Hospitalists, with their expertise in general medicine and comfort with teamwork and coordination of care, are seen by some as an answer to the shortage of medical personnel in the bush. Some authors have suggested that physicians who work in these settings are already de facto hospitalists.3
The program is also an effort to improve quality of care, in response to studies reporting a troubling rate of medical errors and as many as 10,000 to 14,000 preventable deaths occurring within the Australian hospital system annually.4 When the Australian authorities first considered a hospitalist model and began studying programs in other countries, “we noted the rapid growth in hospitalist numbers and the positive contribution they have made to patient flow and patient safety,” says Dr. McGrath.
The participating hospitals are all located in the state of New South Wales: Westmead, Nepean, Bulli, Shellharbour, Shoalhaven, St. George, Sutherland, Fairfield, Manly, Mona Vale, and Hornsby. Depending on the institution, hospitalists may work in geriatrics, cardiology, renal, or emergency care.
In an address to the NSW state parliament, Minister for Health John Hatzistergos explains that hospitalists will coordinate care across departments to ensure that patients enjoy a smooth stay. They will also participate in hospital governance and organization, as well as staff education, giving them a say in developing policies and procedures. “The proposal is tantamount to patients having their own general practitioner in the hospital with them to ensure continued quality care,” he says.5
Many of the new hospitalists will probably come from the ranks of career medical officers (CMOs), general physicians recruited directly out of training to work in underserved rural and suburban hospitals. Most CMOs are concentrated in emergency or critical care, but they can be found across a wide range of specialties, including orthopedics, community medicine, and even sexual medicine.4 CMOs may also follow patients after they have been admitted by a specialist.