Medicolegal Issues

The Specialist Advantage


The speed at which hospital medicine is growing is leaving many hospitalists in uncharted waters as they try to balance clinical practice and academic activities such as teaching, quality improvement, and research.

“Hospitalists often have great ideas but lack the resources to carry them out,” said Scott Flanders, MD, SHM president-elect, clinical associate professor of internal medicine, and director of the hospitalist program at the University of Michigan Health System, Ann Arbor.

Also, hospitalists do not always recognize the role of the subspecialist in diagnosing and treating complex patients—nor the advantages those specialists bring to designing and supporting clinical research. Given the nature of their education, specialists have a deeper understanding than hospitalists of the pathophysiologic concepts and scientific principles underlying important clinical questions, and are more likely to have had fellowship training that includes clinical research experience. They’re likely to be more adept at navigating outside bureaucracies to obtain grants for disease-based investigation.

All in all, specialist participation in hospital-based clinical research projects may improve project feasibility, increase the chances of obtaining money, and allow for wider dissemination of the results than if these projects had been undertaken by hospitalists alone.

“At large institutions, having hospitalists partner with clinical subspecialists could enhance patient enrollment and enhance funding opportunities, because subspecialists have a lot of credibility with funding agencies,” Dr. Flanders says.

Yet, clinical research programs performed by hospitalists and hospital medicine programs still are in an embryonic stage. In this month’s issue of the Journal of Hospital Medicine, he and his colleagues describe a new program for accelerating clinical and translational research by having hospitalists team with subspecialist physicians and other healthcare professionals to ask and answer novel research questions.

Read this Research

Find this study (“The University of Michigan Specialist-Hospitalist Allied Research Program [SHARP]: Jumpstarting Hospital Medicine Research”) in the July-August Journal of Hospital Medicine.

SHARP Solution

In the Specialist-Hospitalist Allied Research Program (SHARP), an academic hospitalist and an academic cardiologist serve as principle and co-principle investigators, respectively. Together, they direct a team of supporting personnel, including a hospitalist investigator, clinical research nurse, research associate, and clinical epidemiologist.

The program began in 2006, with the goal of facilitating multicenter, intervention-based clinical trials. Other aims include enhancing patient participation and supporting pilot projects that would generate enough data to attract money for more in-depth studies. The program is paid for three years by the department of internal medicine with revenues generated for the hospital medicine division.

Through SHARP, there will be “a pool of dollars to support a program and provide an infrastructure for a project,” Dr. Flanders says. “Otherwise, each new project would require a new team to find funding [and] perform data analysis.”

SHARP is, in part, an acknowledgment of the increasingly complex nature of clinical research, Dr. Flanders says. “Many big research projects involve more than one specialty, so there will always be a need to collaborate.”

In a sense, the program is an extension of what hospitalists do already. “Hospitalist work in general is often collaborative and team-based,” Dr. Flanders notes. “We frequently work with nurses and other hospital-based staff members.”

In the Specialist-Hospitalist Allied Research Program (SHARP), an academic hospitalist and an academic cardiologist serve as principle and co-principle investigators, respectively. Together, they direct a team of supporting personnel including a hospitalist investigator, clinical research nurse, research associate, and clinical epidemiologist.

How it Works

A steering committee chaired by the two principle investigators and consisting of academic administrators from the University of Michigan will identify appropriate research projects, determine the best allocation of resources, and help the team overcome the bureaucratic hurdles that inevitably arise in any project that includes multiple departments and institutions.

The program has two opening projects. One is aimed at reducing the incidence of false-positive blood cultures. Right now, as many as half of all the blood cultures that test positive at the University of Michigan turn out to be contaminated. The SHARP team has started a randomized, controlled trial to compare the effects of several different skin antiseptics on the false-positive rate, and ultimately will test more than 12,000 blood culture sets. Other key outcomes will be the quantity of additional diagnostic testing generated by positive cultures, use of resources, and associated costs. Mortality and length of stay also will be examined as secondary outcomes.

The second study has been completed, and data analysis has begun. It examined the role of an inpatient clinical pharmacist in preventing medication errors related to hospital discharge among elderly patients.

“In our experience at the University of Michigan, patients frequently have medication-related adverse events after discharge because they do not understand what medications they should be taking, what they are used for, how to manage side effects, or whom to call with problems,” Dr. Flanders and his colleagues wrote. “In addition, predictable medication-related issues (such as ability to pay for a medicine or expected serum electrolyte changes with newly added medications) are not universally anticipated.”

The pharmacist divided his time between a non-resident hospitalist service and a resident general medicine service, focusing on high-risk patients older than 65. Those patients received pre-discharge counseling and post-discharge follow-up calls from the pharmacist within 72 hours and 30 days of leaving the hospital. The key outcomes include medication issues and actions taken by the pharmacist at or after discharge, as well as clinical outcomes such as emergency department visits, readmission rates, and healthcare-related costs.

So far, the biggest challenge faced by the hospitalists interested in SHARP simply has been finding enough hours in the day for it. One of the program’s goals is to generate grant money to hire supporting staff, but right now the doctors must participate on their own time. Nevertheless, says Dr. Flanders, the response to the program has been positive. “It facilitates the small, difficult steps [in funding and implementing research] along the way,” he says. “People have been pleasantly surprised that it works as well as it does.”TH

Norra MacReady is a medical writer based in California.

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