Editor’s note: Second of a three-part series.
As I mentioned last month, there isn’t a proven best method to use when distributing new referrals among your group’s providers. The popular methods fall along a continuum of being focused on daily, or continuous, leveling of patient loads between providers (“load leveling”) at one end; at the other end of the continuum is having a doctor be “on” for all new referrals for a predetermined time period, and accepting that patient volumes might be uneven day to day but tend to even out over long periods.
There might not be any reason to change your group’s approach to patient assignment, but you should always be thinking about how your own methods might be changed or improved. I have shared (“Bigger Isn’t Always Better,” June 2009, p. 46) my concern that some groups invest far too much time in a morning load-leveling and handoff conference. Make sure your group is using only as much time as needed.
Many large groups (e.g., more than 15 full-time equivalents) that assign patients to providers in sequence, like dealing a deck of cards, have a designated provider who holds the triage pager and serves as “air-traffic controller.” This person typically takes incoming calls about all new referrals, jots down the relevant clinical data, keeps track of which hospitalist is due to take the next patient, pages that person, and repeats the clinical information. As I’ve written before (“How to Hire and Use Clerical Staff,” June 2007, p. 73), many practices have found that during business hours, they can hand this role to a clerical person who simply takes down the name and phone number of the doctor making the referral, then pages that information to the hospitalist due to get the next patient. The hospitalist then calls and speaks directly with the referring doctor.
Small- to medium-sized groups can eliminate entirely the need for any such “air-traffic control” function if they assign all new referrals to a single doctor for specified periods of time. For example, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. today, all new referrals go to Dr. Glass, and from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m., they go to Dr. Cage.
Many—maybe most?—large groups separate daytime admitter and rounder functions so that on any given day, a hospitalist does one but not both. The principal advantages of this approach are reducing the stress on, and possibly increasing the efficiency of, rounding doctors by shielding them from the unpredictable and time-consuming interruption of needing to admit a new patient. And a daytime doctor who only does admissions might be able to start seeing a patient in the ED more quickly than one who is busy making rounds.
Any increased availability of admitters to the ED could be offset by their lack of surge capacity leading to a bottleneck in ED throughput when there are many patients to admit at the same time and a limited number of admitters (often only one). Such a bottleneck would be much less likely if all daytime doctors (i.e., the rounders) were available to see admissions rather than just admitters.
Continuity of care suffers when a group has separate admitters and rounders, because no patients will be seen by the same doctor on the day of admission and the day following. This method requires a handoff from the day of admission to the next day. Such a handoff might be unavoidable for patients admitted during the night, but this doesn’t have to occur when patients are admitted during the daytime.