How can a family physician with a demanding clinical schedule juggle patient care with the grueling administrative and travel duties required of the president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP)? Lori Heim, MD, FAAFP, found the perfect compromise: Give up the family practice and become a hospitalist.
She did so last November, soon after AAFP members voted her the next president of one of the nation’s largest medical organizations. In fact, she is the only hospitalist at 104-bed Scotland Memorial Hospital in Laurinburg, N.C.
“I was looking for an opportunity while I was working as president-elect and then president of the academy,” says Dr. Heim, who takes over as president of the 94,000-member AAFP in October. “Because of the heavy travel demands, it was not possible to keep my old practice.”
Although the career swap is borne of professional necessity, Dr. Heim says her transition to HM practice has been relatively easy. “I love it. [The new job] utilizes my prior training and skills,” she says. “In private practice, I was doing rounds on my own patients, then I would have to run to the office to see my other patients. I could see the advantages of using the hospitalist services. … Now, here I am on this side.”
An active AAFP member for nearly 25 years, Dr. Heim brings a unique confluence of medical training and experience to her new role. She has firsthand knowledge of the key issues intersecting primary care and hospital-based practice—care coordination, physician reimbursement, and quality improvement. She also acknowledges that walls need to be broken down when it comes to family physicians (FP) transitioning to HM careers. More complete training and improvement in hospital administrations’ understanding of an FP’s clinical capabilities will advance their entrance into hospitalist careers.
“I think it could become a large trend because of the financial constraints on family care,” Dr. Heim says, also noting the lifestyle benefits of an HM career. “FPs often cannot do both inpatient and outpatient care. Your productivity, if you are in the clinic, must make a tradeoff between rounds and office hours—and how late at night do I want to be doing rounds?”
Bumpy Road to HM
The transition from family practice to HM is working out well for Heim, but it wasn’t as smooth as one might expect for a decorated career physician.
The daughter of a military pilot, Dr. Heim earned her bachelor’s degree with honors from Portland State University and her medical degree at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. Following her residency at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and a fellowship in faculty development and research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her military medical career resembled a spiral staircase. She went from staff physician to clinic chief to residency director to chief of medical staff, with a few stops in between. After 25 years of military service, she retired as an Air Force colonel and opened a private practice.
Even with decades of training and patient care under her belt, Dr. Heim wasn’t rubber-stamped into a hospitalist position. It’s an issue she hopes to address as part of her AAFP tenure. “I know of hospitals where family physicians can admit and treat their patients but not be considered for a hospitalist position. It happened to me,” she explains. “I went and found a hospital that would use my skills.”
Hospitalist Robert Harrington, MD, FHM, knows the feeling. He had a more traditional primary-care practice before entering a HM career, and he understands the intense financial and workload pressures of family practice. Now the vice president of medical affairs for Alpharetta, Ga.-based IN Compass Health Inc. and chair of SHM’s Family Medicine Task Force, he says “there are barriers to hiring because of the wide variability in family physician training.” The root of the problem is that residents in some programs get less hospital time and experience with HM-patient encounters. “In opposed programs, they compete with other specialties and get less time,” Dr. Harrington says. “In unopposed programs, they tend to get more hospital experience and more rotations in inpatient services. Those folks can transition with little to no difficulty to hospital medicine.”
SHM President Scott Flanders, MD, FHM, associate professor and director of the hospitalist program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, sees great value in what FPs can bring to HM. He wants HM to be open to those interested in a career change; however, he agrees physician training and experience can be an obstacle in the recruitment process. “The training in internal medicine is more geared to hospital medicine than it is in family practice [training],” Dr. Flanders says. “FPs must make sure they have hospital training, including the ICU. Many FP programs may not have this.” He also says FPs looking at an HM career—and internists as well—need to be “up to speed” in systems-based practice.
—Lori Heim, MD, FAAFP, Scotland Memorial Hospital, Laurinburg, N.C., AAFP president-elect
Although they represent a small part of SHM’s membership, Dr. Harrington and his task force want FPs to have “representation and a voice” in the society. “They are a small but growing minority,” he says. “Four or five percent of hospitalists are family-medicine-trained by our membership rolls, but we believe it is a bigger number, as some may not be members of SHM. … We run into more problems with hospital administrators. Some of them insist on IM-trained physicians, and there just aren’t enough IMs out there.”
It’s a C-suite roadblock Dr. Heim is familiar with. “Sometimes there is a parochial view in using internists above family physicians. Why should family doctors be second? It’s a misunderstanding of the experience and what family physicians bring to the table,” she says. “They haven’t done it, so people don’t think they can. Some hospitals are underutilizing family physicians in a hospitalist role. If a physician has hospital privileges, there is no reason they should not be considered to be hired as a hospitalist.”
Tenure of Change
As AAFP president, Dr. Heim says she’ll work to improve working conditions for FPs and fight for her constituents’ rights as Washington debates national healthcare reform. The AAFP and SHM share a number of policy interests, including reimbursement reform, new technologies, and patient-safety initiatives.
“I would like to do more with the various societies to increase opportunities for family medicine,” Dr. Heim says. “In some ways, primary care is being squeezed all around. How are you going to increase the numbers of FPs when they earn less? You are not going to unless you reform the system.”
Another top priority is advancing the idea of a national network of electronic health records (EHRs). Dr. Heim says a linked EHR system would improve communication and handoffs, and help physicians limit medical errors. “That’s the key,” she says. “Until then, it is going to be a hodgepodge of solutions. As long as it requires multiple steps, there will always be slipups.
“When I was in the military, records were kept electronically, and I learned the value of having continuity of electronic records.”
Dr. Heim says she would like to partner with hospital-based physicians on QI projects. “Any doctor, it doesn’t matter who you are, has a role to play in quality improvement, either in procedures to improve outcomes in the operating room or ICU or ED. We all have a role in that,” she says. “That is one of the reasons we have supported comparative effectiveness research. Guidelines are valuable.”
As AAFP president, Dr. Heim says she won’t forget her family physician roots. Her platform is ambitious: Reform both the practice and the payment of healthcare in this country. “I think the country recognizes that the current way of paying for healthcare—built on volume and procedures rather than patient outcome—has resulted in a fragmented and disjointed process,” she says. “It’s not an even a system. … We have to look at patient experience and outcome, not ‘what procedure did we do to that patient?’
“Right now, we are paying more for lower-quality healthcare, and we are not getting the bang for our bucks. We cannot afford to continue to spend money and not get value; we really have to change this time.” TH
Carol Berczuk is a freelance writer based in New York City.