Julia S. Wright, MD, spent 10 years in traditional practice before joining the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. Now a clinical associate professor and section head of hospital medicine, the title has changed and the professional demands have intensified. The mission, however, remains the same.
Every decision she’s made in her career—whether it be medical, managerial, financial, or even her seemingly curious choice of college majors—has been guided by one basic question: What will this mean for the quality of patient care? “It may sound cliché, but that’s always the bottom line,” Dr. Wright says. “It’s why I do what I do.”
You spent 10 years in traditional practice before becoming a hospitalist. How did that prepare you for what you’re doing now?
Answer: That experience is a tremendous asset. I made the switch to inpatient medicine because that was the arena I enjoyed the most. But having had experience in the outpatient setting gives me a better understanding of the continuum of care, and my clinical skills have been honed by that experience. I also have an understanding of the strengths of the primary care physicians (PCP), as well as the breadth of the problems they are able to take on.
How does that help you?
A: It really helps in the patient transition, especially on the return side, when patients go back to their PCP after hospitalization. Having an understanding of what resources are available to PCPs helps to determine an appropriate time to discharge a patient. Someone without that experience may have a tendency to think every loose end has to be tied up, or they may make changes that wind up making things more difficult for PCP. But if you have an understanding of a PCP’s capabilities, maybe the patient can be discharged a little earlier.
The University of Wisconsin’s hospitalist program started in 2005. You were named director in 2006. How exciting is it to guide a new program and help it develop?
A: It’s been a tremendous experience. When I joined, we had six hospitalists. Now we have 19. But it was strategic growth; it wasn’t haphazard.
What do you mean by strategic growth?
A: We didn’t simply say, ‘We need more people.’ Every time we brought somebody on, we really made sure it was going to be someone who would add value to the program and be beneficial to the hospital. We were worried, as we got bigger, that it’d be hard to keep the same cohesiveness and that same espirit de corps. During the interviews and the search process, we’re not just asking, ‘Are they qualified?’ We’re asking, ‘Are they a really good fit?’ And everybody has different areas of interest within the group. Some are more research-inclined; one developed a curriculum; some are more clinically oriented. That allows each hospitalist to have an identity in the group. That translated into a good expansion, and it’s been a win-win for us.
What makes someone a good fit for your program?
A: It sounds cliché, but I think the key to a strong developing program is to have a strong sense of what the group values. For us, we value the academic experience. For people going into academic medicine, the struggle is to be able to provide value to the hospital and yet stay academic. Our hospitalists are very clear—that’s our vision. With the support of the hospital and the department, we were able to do both at the same time.
Can you pinpoint one experience that you’ve had that made you realize you’re doing what you’re meant to do?
A: The biggest reward is always patient care. I enjoy the direct patient experience as much as I always have, and that’s what keeps me in the game.
What have you enjoyed most about your transition to a leadership role?
A: I really enjoy the position, not because of the hierarchy, but because of the opportunities afforded by it. I get to interact with hospital medicine staff and the department of medicine chair, and the vice chairs. I’ve been able to interact with others in hospital medicine across the country, and that has been a great experience.
Some hospitalists enjoy what they do because they don’t have to handle the business side of operations or deal with the administrative hassles that private physicians face. In your role, though, you do have to face those challenges. Is that a drawback?
A: I do have to pay attention to the numbers. That’s the bottom line. But it’s something I actually really enjoy. When it comes to awareness of the balance sheet, there’s a division between the leadership level and the clinician level. It’s hard to bridge that chasm of, ‘I’m here for patient care and I don’t necessarily focus on the numbers.’
How do you bridge the chasm?
A: It’s something we should be emphasizing more in hospital medicine. Some people may think it’s distasteful to think about, but it’s something hospitals do need to care about. There’s not enough of that trickling down. This is a huge area for potential growth. It’s important to have an understanding of the importance of the bottom line without feeling too much like it’s threatening the quality of the practice or getting in the way of what we want to be doing.
What other changes are in store for hospital medicine?
A: If you look at the traditional role of a hospitalist, you do a few things on the side of quality, but basically you’re seeing patients. The theory is there could be market saturation, because there are only a certain number of patients you can see in a hospital. But now hospitalists are seen as a physician resource that didn’t exist before. You have a group of doctors that understand patient care very well and are available to make changes and implement initiatives within a hospital. That’s going to lead to more roles besides direct patient care role. Hospitalists are going to be in charge of a number of administrative duties or assume administrative positions within hospitals. Because we’re branching out into other areas of hospital-based care, we’ll see more growth and still see high demand.
One of your primary medical interests is healthcare for Spanish-speaking families. Why is that so important to you?
A: My interest in working with the Latino population comes from my own background. I was a Spanish literature major at Northwestern University, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to travel. When I started practicing, a large number of the patients were Latino. It became clear how important it is for us to understand what’s happening in our communities. We need to know what patients are coming in, what their demographics are, what their experiences have been, and what their needs are. Everything we do in a hospital translates to what’s happening outside the hospital.
Hospital medicine is quite a switch from Spanish literature. How’d that come about?
A: Actually, it was planned. I always knew I was going to medical school, but I really enjoy linguistics and language. I kept that balance. I didn’t want to be too science-oriented. It was one of those left brain-right brain things.
What is the biggest challenge facing hospital medicine?
A: The challenge is going to be retaining hospitalists and trying to avoid burnout.
How do you address the retention issue?
A: A big part of retention is making people feel happy in their field. It’s about allowing them to feel like they’re contributing in their particular area of physician interest, making them feel like their contributions are valued, making them feel like they can effect change, and making them feel like they’re really part of a team. We’ve been able to keep those as priorities.
How about the risk of burnout?
A: We have to find ways to balance our professions with our personal lives. Everybody’s looking for that balance. I have a husband and three children, so I want it, too. We really have to be reasonable. An important part of being good doctors is being good human beings.
What’s next for you personally?
A: Expanding research and developing a fellowship are two of the primary areas of focus. We also want to focus on triage and flow, and improving the throughput. Beyond that, it’s going to be program expansion, just like it’s been. That’s going to keep me busy. TH
Mark Leiser is a freelance writer in New Jersey.