Did you happen to read a recent New York Times article (www.nytimes.com/2010/05/27/us/27hosp.html) about hospitalists? I thought the article was great, but I was surprised by some of the negative reader feedback. What did you think?
George Eppley, MD
Dr. Hospitalist responds: I read the NYT article by Jane Gross, “New Breed of Specialist Steps in for Family Doctor,” which was published May 26. The accompanying reader comment section is available at http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/26/in-hospitals-new-fingers -on-the-pulse/?ref=us.
The article provides the statistics that all of us in HM have come to know: HM is the fastest-growing medical specialty in the U.S. and, over the past decade, the number of hospitalists in the U.S. has grown from hundreds to 30,000. Gross talks about the care a hospitalist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania provides for her patient. She highlights the challenges of transitions of care and references the work being done by hospitalists and SHM to make sure patients are making safe transitions. While the article was largely supportive of HM, she does provide a shade of balance when she mentions the risks to the patient when hospitalists fail to do their job when it comes to communication.
As a practicing hospitalist, I kind of wished I had stopped reading at the end of the article. I honestly did not like most of what I read in the reader comment section. Although the article was a feel-good story, I think it is fair to say the reader comments were largely negative. I understand that readers with negative experiences with hospitalists might be more likely to post a comment; nevertheless, some of the comments are hard to ignore—mainly because I suspect some of it is true.
One reader from Raleigh, N.C., wrote, “Hospitalists proved inept at contacting the patients’ existing doctors or even talking to the patients. Then, on discharge to nursing homes for further recovery, the ball was dropped further, with very poor communication of medication dosages, etc.” Yikes! What happened to the communication and the medication reconciliation process?
A reader from Massachusetts wrote about “the hospitalist … (who) ordered five blood draws in the space of several hours to replicate tests that had already been taken by the primary-care physician before admission.” So, not only are hospitalists poor communicators and do not do a good job with transitions of care, but their care is also driving up the cost of healthcare needlessly?
The most positive comments seem to come from outpatient providers and, quite honestly, I found them lukewarm at best. A PCP from Charleston, S.C., wrote, “I no longer have to cancel the appointments of the patients at the last minute in order to attend to an emergency occurring outside my office. It is a very efficient system.” Glad to hear the hospitalist relationship is working out for you, Dr. PCP, but as a patient in the hospital, I am worried more about the competency of this doctor, whom I have never met before this hospitalization, as opposed to how this doctor is going to make you more “efficient” in your office practice.
I came away with several thoughts after reading the article and the comments.
First, we need to set the right expectations. Is this the equivalent of the star athlete who makes a brash statement followed shortly thereafter by the statement, “I was misquoted”? Well … maybe. Are we who we say we are? The headline is “New Breed of Specialist Steps in for Family Doctor.”
As a practicing hospitalist, I never describe myself as replacing the family doctor, because this is the worst position I could put myself in. A patient might have a relationship with a family doctor for three or four decades. This family doctor might not only care for this patient, but also his children and grandchildren. The patient visits the family doctor at least once a year for a checkup. But when the patient is as sick as they have ever been in their life and needs their family doctor whom they trust, I am supposed to “step in” for this family doctor? Good luck trying to meet that standard. It’s like putting me next to Justin Timberlake on stage at a teenybopper concert. Who do you think is going to look better in that sort of comparison?
We, as hospitalists, should never allow anyone to think we are replacing their family doctor. We are here to work with the family doctor to provide the best care possible. Do surgeons, medical subspecialists, or ED doctors “replace” the family doctor? No way! They are working with the family doctor. Perhaps the problem here is that we have not set the appropriate expectations for our patients.
Next, we need to be clear in saying what we say we do or doing we what we say we do. A line in this article bothers me more than any of the reader comments: “The most compelling argument in favor of hospitalists, who are now in 5,000 institutions, from academic giants like the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to small community hospitals to innovators like the Mayo and Cleveland Clinics—is that they are there all the time.”
Why does it bother me so much? It is troubling because it is misleading and might simply be untrue. Many hospitalists are not there “all the time.” While many of our hospitalist programs have providers in the hospital 24 hours a day, many do not. I know a number of hospitalists who make rounds at multiple hospitals throughout the day. Are they really hospitalists or are they inpatient rounders?
Hospitalists are physicians defined by their location, not unlike ED physicians. Do we have ED doctors going from hospital to hospital, leaving nurses alone to care for patients when they are at another hospital? So what do we expect from our hospitalists? Should they be in the hospital 24/7? That would seem to be more consistent with the thought that “they are there all the time.” Remember, Gross did not say hospitalists are “reachable” all the time. She did say hospitalists are “on top of everything that happens to a patient—from entry through treatment and discharge.” It is time that we, as hospitalists, uniformly meet those expectations. Patients all over the country are figuring out that not all hospitalists are doing what they are supposed to do when it comes to communications and establishing safe transitions of care. Remember the adage: It does not take many rotten apples to spoil the barrel.
Last, let us talk more about how hospitalists can provide patient-centric care, as opposed to cost savings and carrying out President Obama’s marching orders. The article describes how a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that patients have a reduced length of stay in the hospital when cared for by hospitalists; how hospitalists are being viewed as leaders in healthcare reform; and how the hospitalist spends her nonclinical time “design(ing) computer programs to contain costs.” Do not get me wrong. I am supportive as anyone of the notion that hospitalists should provide cost-effective care. But the reality is that our patients’ No. 1 priority is to believe that their doctor is providing the best care possible. They do not want to feel someone is short-changing them.
Talk all you want to insurers and hospitals about cost savings, but when speaking with patients, I think it makes more sense to discuss the quality as opposed to cost of care. Ask your next patient whether they give a hoot what you do when you are not caring for them. TH