Ethan Cumbler, MD, is board-certified in internal medicine and pediatrics, and has practiced hospital medicine for six years, first at a community hospital and now at the University of Colorado Denver (UCD), where he directs the Acute Care for the Elderly service. The prevalence of stroke in his practice and the daily challenges of managing stroke patients led Dr. Cumbler to seek additional training in stroke care. He is the hospitalist representative to the UCD stroke council, a researcher in the arena of acute stroke care, and is helping UCD become a Joint Commission-certified stroke center.
“There are a variety of roles for the hospitalist in stroke care,” Dr. Cumbler says, explaining that HM physicians can be admitting attendings for stroke patients or part of acute stroke teams, and participate in decisions to start such treatments as intravenous recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA), the Food and Drug Administration-approved clot-busting therapy. “[Hospitalists] can be medical consultants on stroke patients admitted to other hospital services, managing common comorbid conditions such as blood pressure and glucose levels, which have particular character for patients immediately post-stroke.”
Stroke is the third-leading cause of death in the U.S., as well as a leading cause of serious, long-term disability. How many stroke patients are seen by hospitalists is not known, but it is reasonable to assume that a majority of hospitalized stroke patients will encounter a hospitalist, if not for acute treatment, then for ongoing medical management.
Some hospitalists think stroke and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs)—temporary neurological deficits sometimes called “mini-strokes,” and a major risk factor for full-blown strokes—are among the most common diseases seen by hospitalists.1 Acute stroke care is a growing part of HM practice because neurologist availability in emergent situations varies widely between hospitals. The rapid evolution of stroke treatment and the time-sensitive needs of stroke patients represents a huge opportunity for hospitalists to fill that void for their hospitals—whether they want to or not.
“I think hospitalists are fully capable of learning and mastering stroke care, but it requires both interest and training,” Dr. Cumbler says.
HM Can Help Fill a Void
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), there are four neurologists per 100,000 Americans, and not all of those neurologists specialize in stroke care.2 The scarcity of neurological specialists means that in many hospitals, a neurologist won’t be available for the critical assessment and treatment decisions required in the first few hours after a stroke is diagnosed. Yet many hospitalists complain that their preparation during internal-medicine residency did not equip them to care for acute stroke patients.3
S. Andrew Josephson, MD, a neurovascular physician and director of the neurohospitalist program at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, says the number of hospitalists on the front lines of acute stroke care is growing every day. “A new stroke is a very treatable neurological emergency that requires ultra-fast intervention,”7 Dr. Josephson says, “and hospitalists, increasingly, are the people who matter most in that intervention.” The reason, in most cases, is hospitalists are available at all times, and neurologists aren’t.