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Technological Advance or Workplace Setback?


Last month I discussed my concern regarding how often hospitalists are interrupted. In fact, I suspect frequent interruptions to our train of thought and workflow might lead to as many problems and errors as the sleep deprivation associated with long on-call shifts.

Every hospitalist group should think carefully about the effect their practice organization has on interruptions. Variables, such as the work schedule, the use of communication tools (or interruption tools) such as pagers, cell phones, and e-mail, and the use of clerical support staff, have an impact on the number of interruptions. This month, I will discuss the use of a “triage pager,” which is one example of practice organization that can have a huge impact on physician interruptions.

Every hospitalist group should think carefully about the effect their practice organization has on interruptions. Variables, such as the work schedule, the use of communication tools (or interruption tools) such as pagers, cell phones, and e-mail, and the use of clerical support staff, have an impact on the number of interruptions.

Worth the Interruptions?

Many large hospitalist groups have a pager to which all calls about new referrals go, and the pager is passed from one hospitalist to another each day or shift. This pager often is referred to as the “triage” or “hot” pager. It makes it easy for emergency room (ER) doctors and others to know how to reach the correct hospitalist about a new referral–they always call the same number. Typically, the hospitalist holding the pager calls the ER doctor back, learns about the patient, and then pages whichever hospitalist actually will care for the patient. The second hospitalist calls back and learns about the new patient from the “triage” hospitalist.

Although this is a valuable service for ER doctors and others referring patients to the hospitalists, it is terribly disruptive for the hospitalist carrying the pager. The unlucky person is interrupted constantly, and likely will have a very hard time providing patient care. Is there a better way to handle the triage function? Is there an alternative triage method, one that reduces hospitalist interruptions and switch tasking? There are three potential adjustments to the triage system you may want to consider (and remember, this is an issue only for larger groups–say more than 15 or 20 hospitalists).

Clerical Assistance

During business hours, Mondays through Fridays, have incoming referral calls go to a clerical person working for the hospitalists. A call received by this person might go something like:

  • Phone rings;
  • Clerical staff answers: “Hospitalist referral line;”
  • ER doctor (or ER secretary): “I have a patient to be admitted to the hospitalist service;”
  • Staff looks at the roster and determines the appropriate hospitalist for the next new patient;
  • Staff: “That patient will go to Dr. Lovett. Give me the patient’s name and I’ll page Dr. Lovett, who will call you back to discuss the case in a couple minutes.”

This system preserves the easiest way to call referrals to the hospitalists, but decreases hospitalist interruptions and prevents the daisy chain of communication between the ER doctor, the triage doctor, and, finally, the hospitalist who actually will see the patient. Outside of regular business hours, these calls could go to another clerical person on duty in the hospital, or, perhaps, the ER secretary could field the calls and keep track of which hospitalist is up for referral.

On-Duty Hospitalist

If your group can’t, or doesn’t, want to have such calls funneled through a clerical person, the calls could go to an on-duty hospitalist. Rather than calling the ER to learn the details of a new patient who will be cared for by a different hospitalist, the “triage” hospitalist simply looks at a list to determine which hospitalist is up for the next new referral, then sends a page to the physician to call the ER. The triage doctor is interrupted, but immediately hands off the burden of communicating with the ER doctor to the hospitalist who actually will care for the patient.

A New Position

Or, instead of the two approaches above, you might take a 180-degree approach. You could create a new triage doctor position. This hospitalist would have no other responsibilities. In other words, while on triage, a doctor does not have a list of patients to round on and manage. The triage doctor’s only duty is to maximize ED throughput by quickly providing an opinion about whether a patient is appropriate for admission to the hospitalist service, and to assist moving them out of the ED and to the floor quickly. Eric Howell, MD, director, Zieve Medical Services, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has studied this third option, the use of a triage hospitalist who has no other clinical responsibilities, in a teaching hospital setting. Dr. Howell first implemented this as a daytime-only service, however, it proved so invaluable to improving emergency department throughput that it is now in place 24/7. He has published a study of this system and described the evolution in the following post on the SHM list serve:1

“Until 2006, when our gen-med service admission numbers were lower (approximately24 a day), we had the triage hospitalist carry a 50% clinical load, so that they could dedicate 50% time to triage. As our volume increased, and after we expanded the triage service to the ICUs and specialty floors, we dedicated one doc 24-7 (two, 12-hours shifts, actually) to the sole task of triage.

“It initially sounded like a large amount of resources just to triage, but at our 330-bed hospital, it has increased ED capacity substantially. The effect has been not to just increase ED visits and department of medicine admissions, but to increase surgical admissions through the ED, as well. The effect has been to dramatically reduce ambulance diversion. So, now the hospital funds the 24/7 triage position without a second thought.

“We have had enormous success and even expanded the hospitalist triage role to non-hospitalist wards showing dramatic decrease (25%) in ED length of stay. ”

Practical Measures

I’m skeptical a triage pager system, such as Dr. Howell describes above, is a good idea for most hospitalist practices. It is very expensive for a practice to devote physician manpower solely to non-billable services. The payoff, as measured in more productive or less-stressed hospitalists, would not justify the investment. Instead, as Dr. Howell did, you would have to look for a return on the investment outside the hospitalist practice itself, such as improvements in ED throughput.

Remember, Dr. Howell’s study was done in a teaching setting, and I suspect the reason a dedicated triage doctor proved so beneficial was it kept interns from setting up camp in the ED to complete the time-consuming admission process and delaying the patients’ transfer out of the ED. The triage doctor ensures nearly all ED admissions quickly move to the floor where the admitting team will make the time-consuming, initial (admitting) visit. In a non-teaching setting, that process isn’t burdened with trainees who take so long to admit patients, therefore, a dedicated triage hospitalist system probably would not result in such dramatic improvements in ED throughput.


I’ll finish by offering a summary and recommendations, based on my reasonably extensive experience, but almost no research data.

  • For practices smaller than 10 hospitalists, the decision to use a triage pager can be based on preference. It won’t have significant impact on interruptions or work flow.
  • Larger practices, especially those with more than 20 hospitalists, should first try to use a clerical person to field incoming referral calls during weekday business hours. The clerical employee would then page the hospitalist due to get the next new patient, and that hospitalist would call the referring doctor to learn about the patient directly.
  • Large practices in teaching hospitals should think about whether it would be worthwhile to dedicate a hospitalist solely to the task of triage in hopes of reaping benefits elsewhere in the hospital, such as ED throughput. TH

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988 and is co-founder and past president of SHM. He is a principal in Nelson/Flores Associates, a national hospitalist practice management consulting firm. He is part of the faculty for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. This column represents his views and is not intended to reflect an official position of SHM.


1. Howell EE, Bessman ES, Rubin HR. Hospitalists and an innovative emergency department admission process. J Gen Intern Med. 2004.19(3):266-268.

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