When his hospital’s board of trustees was considering a palliative-care program seven years ago, hospitalist Stephen Bekanich, MD, wasn’t sure what to expect. What he did know was that his hospitalist group could provide the University of Utah Health System in Salt Lake City answers to staffing and financial issues surrounding the addition of a palliative-care service.
“They looked around and decided the hospitalist group would be the best place to house [the service], based on our experience with a range of medical management issues and the fact that we’re around 24 hours, seven days a week,” says Dr. Bekanich, who in 2006 became the first medical director of the palliative-care service at University of Utah Hospital.
The hospital board eventually selected palliative care as one of its annual projects, Dr. Bekanich says, not just because it was the right thing to do, but also because palliative care increasingly is used as a quality marker for hospitals. Dr. Bekanich says he took the assignment because it provides a nice buffer and change of pace from the stress of full-time HM service. Several colleagues joined him in rotating through palliative care coverage, although he continued to carry a pager most days and nights to support the physicians, advanced practice nurses, social worker, and chaplain with challenging cases.
After six months of operation, Dr. Bekanich went before his hospital board to discuss the program. He presented hospital data that showed the service had helped save the hospital $600,000, along with “thank-you letters” from grateful families and mentions in obituaries.
—Steven Pantilat, MD, SFHM, director, Univ, of California at San Francisco palliative care service, SHM past president
“A couple of months later, I realized that we needed another nurse practitioner to staff the growing caseload,” he explains. “I went to the chief medical officer and he said to me, ‘I don’t need to see the numbers. I know you’re doing a great job. Just tell me what you need.’ ”
Widely extolled for relieving the physical suffering and emotional distress of seriously ill patients, palliative care has seen rapid advancement in recent years, not only as a humanitarian impulse, but also as a legitimate and recognized medical subspecialty and career choice. Palliative care has its own board certification, fellowships, and training opportunities. For working hospitalists, this subspecialty can complement a career path and enhance job satisfaction. For HM groups, it represents diversification and an additional, albeit modest, income stream, as well as opportunities to improve the quality of hospital care.
“Palliative medicine is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties [ABMS] and nine of its medical specialty boards, which is very significant,” says Steven Pantilat, MD, SFHM, a hospitalist at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center, medical director of UCSF’s palliative-care service. “Along with that come fellowships.”