At first glance, the deck might seem hopelessly stacked against hospitalists with regard to patient satisfaction. HM practitioners lack the long-term relationship with patients that many primary-care physicians (PCPs) have established. Unlike surgeons and other specialists, they tend to care for those patients—more complicated, lacking a regular doctor, or admitted through the ED, for example—who are more inclined to rate their hospital stay unfavorably.1 They may not even be accurately remembered by patients who encounter multiple doctors during the course of their hospitalization.2 And hospital information systems can misidentify the treating physician, while the actual surveys used to gauge hospitalists have been imperfect at best.3
And yet, the hospitalist model has evolved substantially on the question of how it can impact patient perceptions of care.
Initially, hospitalist champions adopted a largely defensive posture: The model would not negatively impact patient satisfaction as it delivered on efficiency—and later on quality. The healthcare system, however, is beginning to recognize the hospitalist as part of a care “team” whose patient-centered approach might pay big dividends in the inpatient experience and, eventually, on satisfaction scores.
“I think the next phase, which is a focus on the hospitalist as a team member and team builder, is going to be key,” says William Southern, MD, MPH, SFHM, chief of the division of hospital medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y.
Recent studies suggest that hospitalists are helping to design and test new tools that will not only improve satisfaction, but also more fairly assess the impact of individual doctors. As the maturation process continues, experts say, hospitalists have an opportunity to influence both provider-based interventions and more programmatic decision-making that can have far-reaching effects. Certainly, the hand dealt to hospitalists is looking more favorable even as the ante has been raised with Medicare programs like value-based purchasing, and its pot of money tied to patient perceptions of care.
So how have hospitalists played their cards so far?
A Look at the Evidence
In its early years, the HM model faced a persistent criticism: Replacing traditional caregivers with these new inpatient providers in the name of efficiency would increase handoffs and, therefore, discontinuities of care delivered by a succession of unfamiliar faces. If patients didn’t see their PCP in the hospital, the thinking went, they might be more disgruntled at being tended to by hospitalists, leading to lower satisfaction scores.4
A particularly heated exchange played out in 1999 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Farris A. Manian, MD, MPH, of Infectious Disease Consultants in St. Louis wrote in one letter, “I am particularly concerned about what impressionable house-staff members will learn from hospitalists who place an inordinate emphasis on cost rather than the quality of patient care or teaching.”5
A few subsequent studies, however, hinted that such concerns might be overstated. A 2000 analysis in the American Journal of Medicine that examined North Mississippi Health Services in Tupelo, for instance, found that care administered by hospitalists led to a shorter length of stay and lower costs than care delivered by internists. Importantly, the study found that patient satisfaction was similar for both models, while quality metrics were likewise equal or even tilted slightly toward hospitalists.6
In their influential 2002 review of a profession that was only a half-decade old, Robert Wachter, MD, MHM, and Lee Goldman, MD, MPH, FACP from the University of California at San Francisco reinforced the message that HM wouldn’t lead to unhappy patients. “Empirical research supports the premise that hospitalists improve inpatient efficiency without harmful effects on quality or patient satisfaction,” they asserted.7