Medicolegal Issues

Teamwork Triumphs


Hospitalists regularly list daily workload and long working hours among their top concerns—but some of their tasks can be delegated to another member of the healthcare team.

“There is a perception that a lot of the activities hospitalists spend their time on don’t need to be done by a hospitalist,” said Kevin O’Leary, MD, assistant professor of medicine and associate division chief, Division of Hospital Medicine, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

For example, at Northwestern, hospitalists engage in discharge activities, case management, and communication with families. All this can be performed by someone else with clinical training, Dr. O’Leary says. The hospital has unit-based care coordinators (UCCs), but they follow all patients on a 30-bed unit and do not go on rounds with the hospitalists. “Their duties were more aligned with the hospital’s interests than the hospitalists’,” Dr. O’Leary explains. He and his colleagues decided to study the effect of assigning hospitalist care coordinators (HCCs) to work with hospitalists exclusively. Their findings are featured in this month’s Journal of Hospital Medicine.

Read this Research

Find this study (“Effect of a hospitalist-care coordinator team on a nonteaching hospitalist service”) in the March-April Journal of Hospital Medicine.

The study covered the 12 weeks from September 2006, through November 2006. During that time, half the hospitalists on duty each week were randomly assigned to work with an HCC, while the other hospitalists continued working in their usual fashion. The HCCs performed the same duties as the UCCs, plus additional ones such as obtaining outside medical records and attending to more discharge details (see Table 1, below). All the HCCs were registered nurses who performed only team-related duties for the duration of the study.

The hospitalists and HCCs rounded together each morning as a team. They collaborated on the daily plan of care and decided on specific duties for each team member to accomplish. Essentially, the HCCs “allowed the physicians to focus more on clinical rather than ancillary issues,” Dr. O’Leary notes.

Dr. O'Leary, left, chats with a colleague at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

Dr. O’Leary, left, chats with a colleague at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

Activities related to the discharge process were a key feature of the HCC role. Among other things, they started discharge, arranged for home care, and wrote instructions. “We think that if this program is adopted long-term, HCCs could be key in planning the discharge process to improve patient safety,” Dr. O’Leary says. “For example, they could call patients at home to make sure they’re taking their medication.”

At the end of each week, the hospitalists completed an on-line survey measuring their satisfaction with the program and its effects on their efficiency. Patients also were contacted seven to 14 days after discharge and asked about their satisfaction with the discharge process.

Five hospitalists were on duty on any given week, for a total 60 hospitalist weeks. Of those, hospitalist-HCC teams accounted for 31 weeks (52%), and control hospitalists the remaining 29 (48%). Of the 31 hospitalists who completed a team week, 28 (90%) reported that the team approach improved their efficiency and job satisfaction. They singled out activities relating to communication with nurses and those associated with discharge planning and execution as particularly benefiting from the presence of an HCC.

“One of the advantages that hospitalists told us about working with the HCC was that it allowed them to be in two places at once,” Dr. O’Leary says. “[For example,] if a new admission came in before they were done with morning rounds, the hospitalist could begin the admission while the HCC looked in on their old patients. Or, if two admissions came at once, the hospitalist could begin to admit one of the patients while the HCC gathered background information on the second.

“Also, having an extra pair of hands was incredibly helpful on rounds for patients who had wounds that needed to be undressed and examined, or for helping to turn or move patients who were otherwise difficult to examine.”

The HCCs were not formally surveyed, but all said they would rather continue as team members than return to their old duties.

Of 71 patients who completed the discharge satisfaction interview, 44 (62%) were cared for by a hospitalist-HCC team, but their satisfaction levels were no different from those reported by patients cared for by control hospitalists.

There was also a suggestion that the addition of the HCC lowered costs and shortened length of stay. Patients cared for by a team incurred an unadjusted mean cost of $10,052.96 +/-$11,708.73, compared with an unadjusted mean cost of $11,703.19 +/-$20,455.78 incurred by the control patients (p=0.008). Unadjusted mean length of stay was 4.70 +/-4.15 days for patients cared for by a team, compared with 5.07 +/- 3.99 for patients seen by control hospitalists (p=0.005). Both findings lost significance on multivariate regression analysis, but the hospital is planning a longer study with a larger sample size to see if truly significant differences emerge.

The HCCs helped in two basic ways, Dr. O’Leary concludes. They lightened the physicians’ workload, and they were able to add a nurse’s perspective to patient care. For example, if the hospitalist wrote an order for a diuretic, the HCC could alert the unit nurse to check the computer for the order. “They had a unique ability to see what the nurses needed to know, because they were nurses themselves,” he says.

Hospitalists aren’t the only physicians who could benefit from this arrangement, he adds. “For physicians in a lot of specialties, there are lots of activities that don’t necessarily need to be done by the doctor. The right support would make them happier and more efficient.”TH

Norra MacReady is a medical writer based in California.

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