Medicolegal Issues

The Accidental Hospitalist


David Yu, MD, learned early on the value of being flexible. While attending Washington University in St. Louis, he found his calling when he changed his major from economics to biology. When the malpractice insurance crisis forced him to close his private practice, he embraced an opportunity to launch a program devoted to the “newfangled concept” of hospital medicine.

“I’m kind of like the accidental tourist,” says Dr. Yu, medical director of hospitalist services at the 372-bed Decatur Memorial Hospital in Decatur, Ill., and clinical assistant professor of family and community medicine at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Carbondale. “I didn’t really go to college with the mind-set of being a doctor, and when I became a doctor, there was no such thing as a hospitalist. … I went where the current took me and, fortunately, here I am.”

Question: What prompted the switch from economics to pre-med/biology?

Answer: When I got to the upper-level econ classes, I realized why the economy is the way it is: because nobody can understand how it works. My sister was in medical school. She really liked it and she talked me into it.

Q: You spent nine years in traditional practice. Why did you become a hospitalist?

A: In 2004, my malpractice insurance rate shot up 400% without any active lawsuits, so I had to close my practice. I had the choice of joining another traditional group, or Decatur (Memorial Hospital) was starting a new hospitalist program. To quote “The Godfather,” they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Q: How did your experience in traditional practice prepare you for your role as a hospitalist?

A: I had been surrounded by incredible specialists. I saw how they interacted with me and how they treated my patients. As hospitalists, we are serving our patients, but really our clientele is the physicians we admit for. When I made the switch, I really had an idea of how a hospitalist should serve traditional practice.

Q: What is that service model?

A: It comes down to what I call the three A’s: You have to be available, you have to be able, and you have to be amicable. One of the problems in our field is a lot of hospitalists complain they’re treated like residents. They say they don’t get respect. They feel mistreated. That’s the wrong attitude. You can’t just ask for respect or demand it. You have to develop relationships.

Q: When Decatur’s hospitalist program started, you were on your own. Now there are seven physicians, two physician assistants, and a practice manager. How rewarding has it been to see it grow?

We have to find ways to help hospitalists take more ownership in their patients and their program. ... With our schedule, you can’t pawn off your responsibility to the nocturnist or the weekend guy.

—David Yu, MD, Decatur (Ill.)

Memorial Hospital

A: It’s been very rewarding. I’m honored to have been chosen as a member of Team Hospitalist, and I’m honored to be a committee member for SHM’s Non-Physician Provider Committee. Those are personal honors, but they are reflections on the success of the program. It’s an honor for the entire Decatur Memorial Hospital, and the administration, that a program started four and a half years ago, indirectly, has received national recognition.

Q: You implemented a one-week-on, one-week-off schedule for your hospitalists as a way to decrease signouts. How did that come about?

A: Signouts have been the bane of medical mistakes. Instead of having signouts twice a day, we have one physician on call for that entire week for his or her patients. It’s patient-centric versus schedule-centric. Physicians leave the hospital when their work is done, instead of looking at the clock and waiting to sign out at a certain time like a factory worker. It treats hospitalists not as shift workers but as attending physicians. It gives them due respect that they can manage their own patients responsibly.

Q: Do you think the schedule improves the quality of patient care?

A: The continuity of care is incredible. If you are admitted and discharged between Mondays, you have one hospitalist in charge of your entire case, instead of multiple physicians being on call for you. That increases patient satisfaction, reduces medical errors, and eliminates the need for unnecessary tests when new physicians take over. I’m also a huge believer that scheduling brings out the best and worst in hospitalists.

Q: How does it bring out the best in them?

A: As medical directors, we have to find ways to help hospitalists take more ownership in their patients and their program. If they’re thinking, “My shift is ending and I’m going to be off and I can hand this issue off to the next doctor,” that can have a tremendous effect on the quality of care and the way a hospitalist delivers medicine. With our schedule, you can’t pawn off your responsibility to the nocturnist or the weekend guy. … If something goes wrong or if the ball gets dropped, there’s no one else to blame it on.

Q: You developed a system at Decatur through which patient discharge summaries are sent electronically to primary-care physicians, often before the patient leaves the hospital. Have the primaries been receptive?

A: Absolutely. Communication is the mother’s milk of hospitalists. Some hospitalist programs are very large, they’re very busy, or there’s no incentive for them to do this because they’re the only game in town. But I practice in a mid-size community and I know all of these doctors. My reputation is my bond. I have to provide good service.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your role as a hospitalist?

A: I love solving problems for a patient. I also love how the relationship builds. You introduce yourself to a patient and their family as a hospitalist and they’re thinking, “Who the heck are you?” For a few seconds, it’s like meeting someone on a blind date. And when they’re discharged, they tell you they had a pleasant experience and they appreciate your help. It’s a courtship at a rapid pace.

Q: What do you consider to be your biggest challenge?

A: Recruitment; the administration asking us to take on more responsibilities; burnout. … We’re a typical hospitalist program; I think the problems are pretty universal.

Q: How do you address those challenges?

A: As medical director, you’re always navigating political and personal minefields. It comes back to developing relationships. The only way to earn goodwill is to give and provide service. That’s a problem some hospitalist programs run into. They want to instantly demand respect. You can’t demand it; you have to earn it. Sometimes hospitalists feel dumped on. Those are opportunities … to provide service in a willing and positive way instead of complaining. I’m not saying you have to be a whipping boy, but there are times when you have to give a little to get a little. That’s where the wisdom of the medical director comes in and sets the whole tone.

Q: What’s ahead for the academic side of your career?

A: We’re considering the possibility of starting a family practice fellowship program for attending residents who finish but want to go into the field of hospital medicine and want additional training. It’s not a done deal, but it’s an exciting possibility.

Q: How so?

A: Every medical director says they have a hard time recruiting. One way we can help solve the problem is by producing more hospitalists. We can’t just complain. We have to increase the pool of professionals interested in our model, train them, and get them integrated into our system.

Q: What advice would you give a student who is considering going that route?

A: You have to be a good communicator, you have to enjoy taking care of very sick people, and you have to enjoy solving very complex problems. You can’t just do it for the lifestyle. If you do, you won’t be happy in the long run. If I ask a medical student or resident why they want to be a hospitalist and they say, “I like the one-week-on, one-week-off schedule,” I tell them, “If that’s the reason you’re considering it, you really should reconsider.” TH

Mark Leiser is a freelance writer in New Jersey.

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