So how did hospitalists achieve the positive results?
“Knowing the most up-to-date and evidence-based treatment plans, understanding how to use the hospital systems in the most efficient manner, being on the ward for eight to 12 hours per day to respond to issues that arise, as well as 24-hour availability by phone for the residents,” she says. “The day-to-day continuity, as well as the ability to consistently improve systems of care, are distinctive advantages to hospital medicine.”
The case for HM as a model of efficiency comes with a major caveat, however. David Meltzer, MD, PhD, FHM, chief of the section of hospital medicine and an economist and public-policy expert at the University of Chicago, points out that healthcare costs don’t end with a patient’s hospital discharge. Could savings achieved during inpatient care be offset by greater costs afterward?
A new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston has sharpened that question with the suggestion that, at least in some cases, hospitalist-procured savings might not last.6 When compared to care delivered by primary-care physicians (PCPs), the researchers found that hospitalist care yielded an average inpatient savings of $282 per Medicare beneficiary. But that reduction was wiped out by an extra $332 average cost in the month after discharge, due to higher readmissions, more emergency department visits, and more patients sent to nursing facilities instead of to their own homes. An accompanying editorial raises the uncomfortable question: “Are hospitalists discharging their patients more quickly but less appropriately, such that some of their patients bounce back?”7
A program that is structured in such a way as to hire or retain experienced hospitalists is likely to have a higher cost savings than one that doesn’t.
—David Meltzer, MD, PhD, FHM, chief, section of hospital medicine, economist, University of Chicago
The study itself has its own share of caveats: Data were collected only until 2006, before reducing 30-day readmissions became a widespread focal point. The editorial also highlights the possibility that hospitalists might care for patients whose weaker relationships with outpatient providers could be the true driver of increased readmissions. In a statement, SHM President Joe Li, MD, SFHM, adds that constructive talks about healthcare costs must include the notion of quality, something the organization has worked to improve with interventions like Project BOOST.
At the very least, the new research highlights the importance of context when considering HM impacts on cost and quality. Separate studies, meanwhile, suggest that the jury is still out on whether other hospitalist-led models can consistently improve outcomes and costs. At academic centers, for instance, work-hour limits for medical residents have provided a strong impetus for joint-care arrangements, such as comanagement systems. A 2004 study found that an orthopedics-hospitalist comanagement structure led to a modest reduction in complications after elective hip and knee surgery. But the report documented no difference in costs or actual length of stay.8
More recently, a study of nearly 7,600 patients at UCSF Medical Center found that an HM-neurosurgery comanagement model had no significant impact on the center’s patient mortality, readmissions, LOS, or patient satisfaction. The comanagement system, however, yielded an average savings of $1,439 per hospitalization and boosted physicians’ perceptions of quality and safety.9
Andrew Auerbach, MD, MPH, SFHM, associate professor of medicine at UCSF Medical Center, says the savings, while not dramatic, nevertheless can add up when applied to the thousands of patients seen by the service every year. “That’s compelling because I think one of the things that you’re arguing when you’re doing these services is what the return on investment is going to be,” he says. “Traditionally, these have been implemented without any specific financial return on investment being applied, but the large expectation that clinical improvement is going to happen.”