Many physicians use traditional practice as their stepping stone to a hospitalist career. David M. Grace, MD, took a far more unconventional path.
He served as a combat medic in the Army National Guard, joined a disaster medical assistance team at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and volunteered to help the American Red Cross in times of crisis—all before entering medical school.
Dr. Grace became a hospitalist in 2002, and now serves as hospitalist division area medical officer for The Schumacher Group, a staffing and consulting firm in Lafayette, La., that hires physicians as independent contractors to work in hospitals across the country.
But 21 years into his healthcare career, he continues to seek opportunities that offer the same two rewards: “I want to be filled with Adrenalin,” he says, “but I still want to use my brains.”
—David M. Grace, MD, The Schumacher Group, Lafayette, La.
Question: Given your varied background, how did you wind up becoming a hospitalist?
Answer: My predoctoring resume reads like a fast track of becoming an emergency physician. In residency, I had heard the term “hospitalist.” I knew I liked dealing with sick patients. Emergency departments act as a fairly good filter, and anyone who gets through and upstairs truly is a sick patient. I figured if I were a hospitalist, all my patients would be sick, as opposed to just some. That really drove me to hospital medicine.
Q: You founded your own hospitalist company in 2005, but within two years, you joined The Schumacher Group. Why did you make the switch?
A: With the speed with which hospital medicine is growing, I thought if I could tap into their resources and infrastructure … I’d be able to do things I couldn’t do in my own group for years, if not decades. I really thought I would be able to impact a far larger portion of patient lives with them than I could in my own smaller, somewhat homemade group.
Q: When The Schumacher Group formed, it focused on emergency departments. In 2007, it launched a hospitalist service. What’s the benefit?
A: If you put good hospitalist systems under the same umbrella as good emergency department systems, you can do things to boost the synergy between the two disciplines and improve patient care. In the facilities where we’re managing both the ED and the hospitalists, we can effect patient care from the moment the patient swings through the ambulance bay doors until the moment they are discharged.
Q: How successful has the HM effort been?
A: The hospitalist side, by the end of the year, will have about 20 to 25 practices up and running, with growth in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 practices a year expected to come on line.
Q: What are the advantages to a private corporation setup?
A: At the end of the day, doctors need to be patient-care advocates. But if you are employed by a hospital, they sign your check. When push comes to shove on a quality issue, I think there’s a tendency not to shove as hard when the person you’re shoving is the person employing you.
Q: Could this approach be the wave of the future?
A: I think so. It goes back to the idea of focusing all of your resources into one small area, such as hospital medicine or inpatient medicine, so there’s far fewer distractions than for a hospital that runs its own hospitalist program. We saw that in the 1970s, when hospitals were buying primary-care practices left and right. They realized they didn’t have the skills or the resources to make that effective, and they rapidly divested.
Q: Most doctors at the executive level of The Schumacher Group—including yourself—still practice medicine. Why is that so integral to the mission?
A: When I served in the military, the best officers I served under were officers who had been enlisted men earlier in their career. The same follows suit in hospital medicine. When I make an administrative decision, it can affect thousands of patient lives tomorrow. I can mentally track the effects of my decision all the way back to how it will affect the patient laying in the bed. If you’re not having that constantly reinforced by seeing patients, it’s very easy to lose track of it, and that has such a profound effect on patient care.
Q: SHM recently designated you one of the inaugural “Fellows in Hospital Medicine.” What is the biggest reward of a HM career?
A: For me, there are two. One is the ability to see the fruits of your labor much more rapidly than in the outpatient world. I can have a patient in bed in front of me actively dying and watch them a week later walk out of hospital in good condition. That’s a very different timetable than the outpatient world, when you may put a patient on all the right medicines to reduce the risk of a heart attack and, over 60 years, watch them not have a heart attack. The other thing I find very rewarding is the amount of measurements and data collected on what we do. We get feedback ranging from patient satisfaction scores to referring physician scores to readmission rates to data that shows if we are able to get patients better outcomes at lower costs. You just don’t get that type of feedback in many other fields.
Q: What is the greatest challenge facing the profession?
A: One of the biggest is the supply and demand mismatch. Right now, one of the hardest jobs is a hospitalist recruiter. With every physician having five to 10 open job offers …recruiting is difficult, and recruiting the right physician is extremely difficult.
Q: How can that be addressed?
A: One way is to be efficient. Can we see more patients in the same amount of time with no decrease in quality? For us, it involves the use of what we call a practice coordinator. It’s an employee of The Schumacher Group who is located in the individual hospital who does everything from assisting with managing the practice to answering telephone calls. This really allows us to help us organize our time better, so we don’t get bogged down in nonclinical work. Every minute spent on the phone with an insurance company or home health agency is a minute not spent at the bedside. Another way is expanding the use of midlevel providers. The key is not to use them as a replacement for a physician, but as an assistant to the physician—again, to boost capacity.
Q: How did your background with the military, FEMA, and the Red Cross prepare you for what you’re doing now?
A: Business as usual is very difficult to do in a chaotic environment, so I began to appreciate the importance of systems. If you’re relying on an individual and that individual leaves, your entity is in trouble. If you put good systems into place, you’re not so reliant on any one individual. Systems can function long after any individual doctor has come and gone. In the world of hospitalists—where there’s still fairly high turnover, being a young field and there are many opportunities—it’s imperative the systems approach is taken. TH
Mark Leiser is a freelance writer in New Jersey.