Editors’ note: “Alliances” is a new series written about the relationships that hospitalists have with members of the clinical care team—from the team members’ points of view. It’s our hope that each installment of “Alliances” will provide valuable, revealing feedback that hospitalists can use to continually improve their intrateam relationships and, ultimately, patient care.
Social workers are a natural fit with hospitalists and the hospitalist’s strongest allies and staunchest supporters, wrote Bradley Flansbaum, DO, MPH, in his Nov./Dec. 2003 article in The Hospitalist. What makes this collaboration such a positive one and what can members of these two professions learn from each other?
Dr. Flansbaum, a hospitalist and internist with the Division of Internal Medicine/Primary Care at Lenox Hill Hospital, Bronx, N.Y., and a former SHM board member, recently reiterated the benefits of the hospitalist-social worker relationship. In general, he believes that hospitalists provide a unique history-taking perspective that is useful to social workers in their work. Foremost, social workers bring a rich understanding of the available resources that patients need after discharge and a view of the patient’s nonmedical circumstances. Together, the two professionals’ daily interactions generate more effective discharge planning as a part of the multidisciplinary team.
Amy Lingg, MS, MPA, works on the general medicine unit at Greenwich Hospital (Conn). She says the role of the hospitalist is fairly new at Greenwich. In fact Sabitha Rajan, MD, MS, was the first one at Greenwich Hospital.
In Lingg’s view, nothing can replace the availability of the hospitalist to discuss patient cases, not only with the social worker but also as a team with the patient and family.
“[Attendings] are not there for the moment-by-moment events that happen on the unit, including availability when families are here,” says Lingg. “If I need to speak with a family and the physician’s input is important there, I can just page the hospitalist, she’s here. Whereas with an attending you have to make an appointment; you have to schedule around them. It can become difficult.”
Lingg, who works with hospitalist Dr. Rajan, director of hospitalist services at Greenwich Hospital, cites an example of the benefits of hospitalists’ 24/7 availability: “We had a fairly young woman in her mid-40s who was the divorced mother of a 17-year-old son. The father was not in the picture, and the woman was dying of alcoholic cirrhosis and liver failure. She was Dr. Rajan’s patient. One of the issues was the fact that there was no adult guardian for the son although he was going to be 18 in two months.
“So it involved a lot of talking with friends of the woman, who were sort of stepping in as surrogate guardians to him,” Lingg continues. “There were a lot of logistics [regarding] what would happen with him. We were trying to call the grandfather who was estranged. It was a very, very sensitive, very, very tricky case. It went on for days and days. … Dr. Rajan and I could work on this together on a dayto-day basis, [including] … the counseling, relaying medical knowledge to the family, what was going on clinically, trying to deal with that in a way where she was talking in one way to [the] adults and in a different, more appropriate [for the boy’s age] way to the 17-yearold son. And I can be there to help with that process.”
The situation was resolved to the satisfaction of the mother, the son, the friends, and the providers. “It was really pretty extraordinary,” she said. “I’ve talked about that a couple of times, including at a staff meetings when we were talking about getting new hospitalists. That is something I’ve described because, really, it was very special.”
Although everyone on a multidisciplinary team can bring something to the discussion that makes the team work better, social workers and hospitalists collaborate well in painting a more comprehensive picture of the patient’s lifestyle, living habits, and needs.
“In many hospitals … there’s a pattern that develops [whereby at] some time in the morning the hospitalist and social worker will get together and talk,” says Dr. Flansbaum “The hospitalist speaks the language of the social worker and knows what to tell them and how to direct them rather than just saying, ‘the patient’s homeless or the patient needs help at home.’”
After working regularly with social workers and recognizing what they need to know, he says, “the hospitalist is more likely to say, ‘the patient has Medicaid,’ or ‘the patient has this insurance,’ [or] ‘the patient has a home-health [caregiver] four hours a day and needs six or eight hours a day,’ or ‘the patient’s going to need a subacute nursing facility.’ … I think our insights are different from voluntary physicians and our face-time with social workers is more efficient.”
Sylvia Krafcik, MSSA, LISW, with MetroHealth Medical Center, Cleveland, says hospitalists are “great to work with because they’re very dedicated to the population they’re caring for, because this is their whole responsibility; they don’t have a private caseload.”
But in her view most hospitalists are focused on patients’ medical conditions and some of them are not as tuned in to all the other aspects of the patient, such as all the psychosocial dynamics.
“A lot of them are, but some aren’t,” Krafcik says. “Especially at MetroHealth, we’re a county hospital. So many of the patients that come here are poor. A lot of them are alcoholics or drug abusers. They’re homeless. They live on the streets. They don’t have a primary doctor. They’re usually not compliant with their medications.”
“Here at Metro we have a lot of patients who have extreme social circumstances that affect their medical issues so much,” says Sara Dunson, MSW, LSW, who also works as a social worker at Metro-Health. “I think the hospitalist has greater insight into the person’s environment and all the social structures that they have at home and that are going on in their life [than other physicians might].”
But there is always room for improvement.
“We had one patient who wasn’t able to read, and he never told anybody this,” says Dunson. “And as social workers, we have more of a way of finding that kind of stuff out from patients than the doctors might. And he kept coming in and coming in and was noncompliant with his medication. We eventually determined that this was why he was noncompliant and was causing all these medical issues. The doctors finally [understood] why this gentleman kept coming in with the same problems and he wasn’t taking care of himself. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to, it was just that he was having problems reading all the medications and all the discharge paperwork, and he was too ashamed to tell anybody. [Once the social workers questioned him and got this] out in the open, we were able to get him help with that.”
The doctors focused on what he was or wasn’t doing, but they hadn’t looked at why he wasn’t adherent, explains Dunson. If hospitalists do that more often, she thinks, they could save time and get better outcomes sooner.
COMMUNICATING WITH PATIENTS AND FAMILIES
“I think where hospitalists are coming from is a whole different mindset than a physician who has mainly an office practice,” said Lingg. “The office practice comes first [for them]. Some of our physicians have huge practices in town. And they’ll visit the hospital very early in the morning or in the evening. ... So if I need something in a case like that, if there was not a hospitalist involved, it would have been separate meetings for the family with the physician … and [with] me at another time.”
To hospitalists, a social worker can serve as an important adjunct in talking to the patient and family. “For example, if [social workers] are giving bad news, they warn the physician first,” says Dr. Rajan. “If they’re going to go in and tell the patient that they’re not going to qualify for any home services, they tell the physician as well so that [the hospitalist will not later be] meeting an angry patient.” In addition, she says, “for critically ill or long-term patients, social workers [can] help family members cope. Sometimes as physicians we don’t have the time or we don’t have the resources to do that.”
But this doesn’t let doctors off the hook in regard to addressing the whole person’s needs. Especially if someone has multiple medical problems, the social worker needs to know the availability and level of support for which the family can be counted.
“Social workers will ask questions such as: Are the families involved? or Is there any family?” says Krafcik. “Do they need to go in a nursing home or do they need 24-hour care at home? Is the family able to provide that? [E]very morning we meet to have team rounds. And the [team] go[es] over every patient on the floor, and then I will ask those questions if the doctor hasn’t given me that information.”
Social workers appreciate and would like hospitalists to do more listening to the patient and family for the aspects of the history and psychosocial status that the social worker will need to know.
In the course of their interactions, what do hospitalists and social workers teach each other that could lead to working a case more effectively and to the greater satisfaction of all involved?
Most of those we interviewed seem to think that the greatest service hospitalists provide is to teach the social worker the medical components that go along with what the social worker does every day.
“[Social workers] get a better understanding of [whether] someone comes in with heart failure or a fall or a stroke, just by repetition and also education; they get to understand after a while what’s needed for individual medical diagnoses,” says Dr. Flansbaum.
“When I know [better] what the medical condition is,” says Krafcik, “I have an idea of how much help [the patient] would need at home and their ability to function. And I would make sure that the patient gets physical therapy or occupational therapy referral or speech therapy.”
Again, perhaps the area where the social worker most teaches the hospitalist regards available resources to solve problems over and above the purely medical. “They know the social system and the needs of different forms and eligibility and what different patients are entitled to and what the system will provide,” says Dr. Flansbaum.
Dunson believes hospitalists are perceived as being more involved in a holistic way with the patient. “I always stress that it is so important to look at the whole person and not just the medical aspects,” she says. “It’s hard for the doctor sometimes to realize that this person might not be able to afford this medication and that’s why they’re noncompliant and all the other issues. So I think is important to open up to the other aspects of a person’s life and not just the medical aspects.”
Social workers’ knowledge of medical and nonmedical resources, both locally and nationally, offer hospitalists essential information that leads to designing more appropriate and effective post-discharge plans. Hospitalists can best team with social workers by consistently keeping in mind the patient’s overall circumstances and informing their colleagues of the medical information that can help social workers do their best work. TH
Writer Andrea Sattinger will write about the effect of poor communication skills in the November issue of The Hospitalist.