Editor’s note: Third of a three-part series.
In the two monthly columns preceding this one, I’ve provided an overview of some ways hospitalist groups distribute new referrals among the providers. This month, I’ll review things that cause some groups to make exceptions to their typical method of distributing patients, and turn from how patients are distributed over 24 hours to thoughts about how they might be assigned over the course of consecutive days worked by a doctor.
There are a number of reasons groups decide to depart from their typical method of assigning patients. These include:
- One hospitalist is at the cap, others aren’t;
- Consult requested of a specific hospitalist;
- Hospitalists with unique skills (e.g., ICU expertise); and
- A patient “fires” the hospitalist.
There isn’t a standard “hospitalist way” of dealing with these issues, and each group will need to work out its own system. The most common of these issues is “bouncebacks.” Every group should try to have patients readmitted within three or four days of discharge go back to the discharging hospitalist. However, this proves difficult in many cases for several reasons, most commonly because the original discharging doctor might not be working when the patient returns.
The Alpha & Omega
Nearly every hospitalist practice makes some effort to maximize continuity between a single hospitalist and patient over the course of a hospital stay. But the effect of the method of patient assignment on continuity often is overlooked.
A reasonable way to think about or measure continuity is to estimate the portion of patients seen by the group that see the same hospitalist for each daytime visit over the course of their stay. (Assume that in most HM groups the same hospitalist can’t make both day and night visits over the course of the hospital stay. So, just for simplicity, I’ve intentionally left night visits, including an initial admission visit at night, out of the continuity calculation.) Plug the numbers for your practice into the formula (see Figure 1, right) and see what you get.
If a hospitalist always works seven consecutive day shifts (e.g., a seven-on/seven-off schedule) and the hospitalist’s patients have an average LOS of 4.2 days, then 54% of patients will see the same hospitalist for all daytime visits, and 46% will experience at least one handoff. (To keep things simple, I’m ignoring the effect on continuity of patients being admitted by an “admitter” or nocturnist who doesn’t see the patient subsequently.)
Changing the number of consecutive day shifts a hospitalist works has the most significant impact on continuity, but just how many consecutive days can one work routinely before fatigue and burnout—not too mention increased errors and decreased patient satisfaction—become a problem? (Many hospitalists make the mistake of trying to stuff what might be a reasonable annual workload into the smallest number of shifts possible with the goal of maximizing the number of days off. That means each worked day will be very busy, making it really hard to work many consecutive days. But you always have the option of titrating out that same annual workload over more days so that each day is less busy and it becomes easier to work more consecutive days.)
An often-overlooked way to improve continuity without having to work more consecutive day shifts is to have a hospitalist who is early in their series of worked days take on more new admissions and consults, and perhaps exempt that doctor from taking on new referrals for the last day or two he or she is on service. Eric Howell, MD, FHM, an SHM board member, calls this method “slam and dwindle.” This has been the approach I’ve experienced my whole career, and it is hard for me to imagine doing it any other way.