The impact of last summer’s new restrictions from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) on how many hospitalized patients a first-year resident can treat on an internal-medicine (IM) rotation was as immediate as it was evident at Monmouth Medical Center, a 527-bed teaching hospital in Long Branch, N.J. The institution had a class of eight rookie residents whose caseloads were cut from 12 to the new threshold of 10.
Physicians “had to find some other way of getting attention . . . for 16 patients,” says Sarah Wallach, MD, FACP, director of Monmouth’s IM residency program and vice chair of the department of medicine at the hospital. At Monmouth, the solution came in the form of a new hire—a nurse practitioner (NP)—to handle the overflow. The NP service is used predominantly for referral patients from primary-care physicians (PCPs), as opposed to independent hospital admissions.
But because the NP service does not provide 24-hour coverage, the hospital can get away with only one person in the position. To extend coverage all day long, Dr. Wallach estimates she would need to hire two or three additional NPs, plus another one or two administrative positions to provide relief on holidays and vacations. “You would need five people,” she says. “I can’t afford that.”
Few hospitals or HM groups can afford new hires in today’s world of Medicare reimbursement cuts, shrinking budgets, and—courtesy of the newest rules—restricting patient caps for residents. The latest rules took hold about a year ago, but hospitalists in both academic and community settings say the impact already is noticeable.
Many hospitals have had to craft solutions, which have included burdening academic hospitals with more clinical responsibilities, turning to private HM groups (HMGs) to assume the patients residents can no longer care for, or hiring nonphysician providers (NPPs) to pick up the slack. As Dr. Wallach pointedly notes, the latter two solutions cost money at a time when hospitals have less to go around.
Already, teaching hospitals have begun discussions about how the newest rules—and the future changes they presage—will change the playing field. Will a wave of academics flee their classroom (the teaching hospital), as nonteaching duties become an intrusion? Will teaching hospitals face financial pressure as they struggle to replace the low-cost labor force that residents represent?
Perhaps most importantly from a medical perspective, will graduate trainees be as prepared as their predecessors when they enter practice?
The answers will have a direct correlation to private HMGs, which are poised to see more patients in the wake of residency restrictions, particularly on overnight services. The cost of hospital care will increase for hospitals, putting more pressure on hospitalist groups that tout themselves to C-suites as engines for cost savings. Long-term implications, unfortunately, remain murky, as the newest rules have been in place for a relatively short time. Plus, ACGME is expected—at the end of this month, according to a recent memo to program directors—to announce more changes to residency guidelines.
“Hospitalists will always be involved in teaching—it will never go away,” says Julia Wright, MD, FHM, clinical professor of medicine and director of hospital medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison and a member of Team Hospitalist. “But it will be a very different balance, a different kind of feel.”
The Past to the Future
To understand the concerns moving forward, it’s important to first look back. In July 2003, new ACGME rules went into place capping the workweeks of residents at 80 hours. Rules were put into place that regulated the number of patients that residents could be assigned, and those thresholds were further tightened on July 1, 2009. The most notable 2009 change: A first-year resident’s patient census must not exceed 10 patients. ACGME CEO Thomas J. Nasca, MD, MACP, sent a letter to program directors in early May announcing more changes to resident work hours. The letter indicates proposals will be announced by the end of this month, and public comment will follow. At the earliest, new rules changes would go into effect in 2011. “The board may adopt a modification to the duty-hours standard,” says Julie Jacob, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based ACGME. “Any proposed standards would get a public comment.”