Medicolegal Issues

Self-Serve SSU Study


When the hospitalist-run short-stay unit (SSU) debuted at Cook County Hospital in Chicago seven years ago, a dearth of clinical research made it difficult to show the efficacy of such programs. Only a handful of such studies existed, and none had been conducted in the U.S. So while the hospitalists behind the nascent Cook County SSU thought their approach worked, Brian Lucas, MD, FHM, MS, wanted more evidentiary proof.

“We accept patients the emergency department sends to us without argument,” says Dr. Lucas, a hospitalist in the Department of Medicine at Cook County. “We wanted to be able to convey to the ED docs with data what kind of patients actually are best suited for the short-stay. We didn’t want it to be anecdotal or based on hunches a couple of us had. … We thought it would be nice to contribute something to the literature.”

Now they have.

Their prospective, observational, cohort study, “A Hospitalist-Run Short Stay Unit: Features that Predict Length-of-Stay and Eventual Admission to Traditional Inpatient Services,” can be found in the May-June Journal of Hospital Medicine. The study found that 79% of 738 eligible patients had successful SSU stays. Success was defined as discharge from the unit within 72 hours without admission to a general hospital unit.

The authors also found that in a multivariable model, the provisional diagnosis of heart failure predicted stays of longer than 72 hours (P=0.007), but risk assessments were unimportant. Patients who received specialty consultations were most likely to need eventual admission, and the likelihood of long stays was inversely proportional to the accessibility of diagnostic tests.

“In our hospital-run SSU, the inaccessibility of diagnostic tests and the need for specialty consultations were the most important predictors of unsuccessful stays,” the authors concluded. “Designs for other SSUs that care for mostly low-risk patients should focus on matching patients’ diagnostic and consultative needs with readily accessible services.”

Hospitalists are increasingly involved with quality-improvement projects at their hospitals. In order to actually decide whether it’s working right, you need data, and usually data costs a lot of money. In this case, it was free.

—Brian Lucas, MD, FHM, MS, hospitalist, ­Cook County Hospital, Chicago

Dr. Lucas thinks the study could help HM groups establish or refine hospitalist-led SSUs and understand the best way to administer programs. He also points out that minimal funding was needed to complete the review, as the study mostly required the time of participating hospitalists to record their own data.

“Hospitalists are increasingly involved with quality-improvement projects at their hospitals,” Dr. Lucas says. “In order to actually decide whether it’s working right, you need data, and usually data costs a lot of money. In this case, it was free.”

Cook County’s 14-bed SSU was formed in 2002, when the hospital moved into new facilities and reduced its bed count from about 650 to 500. The decreased number of beds led to the short-term unit approach to handle potential overflows and diagnoses that required shorter lengths of stay. Dr. Lucas ran the unit at inception and later handed it off to Rudolf Kumapley, MBChB, its current medical director.

But questions on the operational parameters of the unit arose quickly. What types of admissions should the SSU allow? What risk levels would it focus on? And because one of the main benefits of an SSU is to alleviate pressure and backlogs in the ED, how should the wants of ED physicians be balanced against the success rate of the SSU?

“This was an extremely useful unit,” Dr. Kumapley says, and he thought, “Why don’t we get ourselves some data?”

At a Glance

Publication: Journal of Hospital Medicine, May-June 2009

Title: “A Hospitalist-Run Short Stay Unit: Features that Predict Length-of-Stay and Eventual Admission to Traditional Inpatient Services”

Authors: Brian Lucas, MD, FHM, MS, Rudolf Kumapley, MBChB, Benjamin Mba, MBBS, MRCP, Shane Borkowsky, Abdo Asmar, MD, Samuel Ofori-Ntow, and Trevor Lewis, MD, Cook County Hospital, Chicago; Imran Nisar, Alexian Brothers Medical Center, Oak Grove Village, Ill.; Kuenok Lee, MD, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago; and Julia Bienias, MD, Rush Medical College, Chicago

Study Structure

While ED physicians can be admitted to the SSU without approval of a unit-assigned physician, Cook County’s departments of medicine and emergency medicine have promoted five guidelines for admission, although none are statutory:

  • Patients should have anticipated stays of less than 72 hours;
  • Patients should not be expected to require traditional inpatient services;
  • Patients with provisional cardiovascular diagnoses should be preferentially admitted to the SSU over general medical units;
  • No patients should be admitted with a risk level higher than intermediate; and
  • Patients shouldn’t require advanced ancillary services, including bedside procedures, time-intensive nursing, and complex social services.

Once the study began, attending physician investigators would interview, examine, and review the health records of enrolled patients within 12 hours of admission to the unit. When diagnoses included possible acute coronary syndrome (ACS) or decompensated heart failure, additional data was gathered. ACS and decompensated heart failure are two of the most common provisional diagnoses admitted to the SSU, in large part because the unit is equipped with continuous telemetry monitors, a treadmill testing laboratory, and other reserved cardiac tests.

“We built an online database that allowed the physicians to enter the data on all of their patients in real time,” Dr. Lucas explains. “We didn’t have any research assistants. We gathered all the data ourselves.”

Length of Stay

Of the 21% of unsuccessful stays, the most common reason was a hospital length of stay (LOS) longer than 72 hours (71% of 156 patients), although the median LOS was 42 hours. Sixty-six patients eventually required traditional inpatient services, nearly half of those after a specialty consult. The study concluded that the types of services patients received during their SSU stays were stronger predictors of success than the patients’ characteristics upon admission.

“I was surprised by some of the findings, in the sense that I’ve worked and I’ve seen the kind of patients that are admitted into ED-run short-stay units … and for the most part, that is observation medicine,” Dr. Lucas says. “I got the immediate sense in our unit you’re actively managing sick patients. They’re just discharged within 72 hours.

“One of the whole reasons to have hospitalists run this unit, as opposed to ED docs, is because the hospital should be able to handle any diagnoses that come their way because they’re handling any diagnoses that come their way upstairs. But the ED doctors are more limited in what they’re able to do.”

Dr. Kumpaley adds that the hospitalist-run SSU works best when there is open communication between ED physicians who are doing the admitting and SSU physicians who must deal with the repercussions of those decisions.

In the case of a hospitalist-run unit, the earlier the two departments start a dialogue, the more successful the unit will be in determining whether patients should be admitted to the SSU in the first place, Dr. Lucas says.

“Every time you have to hand off a patient to a new doctor, there’s risk involved,” he says. “One of the ideas of HM right now is how transitions should be improved upon. The best way to improve on care transitions is to make them unnecessary altogether.” TH

Richard Quinn is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.

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