It’s been a hectic week, as the Annals of Internal Medicine paper regarding hospitalist outcomes was published.1 I cannot escape the fallout of the paper showing that the hospitalist model is associated with increased costs of care. The Internet, the phone, my email, the radio, the hallways all are abuzz with excitement about the implications of this paper. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. The viewpoints range from “the article is methodologically flawed” to “yeah, but that data is old and things are different now,” to “I knew the model was bunk” to “it’s time to bring back the traditional model of care.”
Moreover, nobody is afraid to share.
Wherever you stand on this continuum, it isn’t hard to find a supporting opinion. NPR covered it, newspapers reported it, and bloggers blogged it. Thousands of words were typed, printed, tweeted, spoken. However, one word seemed conspicuously absent. That word? Thanks.
The study authors examined more than 58,000 admissions at 454 hospitals and compared the impact of hospitalist versus PCP care on in-hospital and post-discharge outcomes. Predictably, hospital length of stay (LOS) was shorter (0.64 days) and less costly ($282) with the hospitalist model. This has been shown, albeit generally with more robust outcomes, in nearly all-previous studies. Importantly, however, this study lifted the veil on what happens after discharge—and the findings have rocked the foundation of the HM field.
Hospitalist patients were less likely to follow up with their PCP, more likely to go to a skilled nursing facility, more likely to return to the ED, and had higher rates of 30-day readmission. All of this post-discharge care came with a price tag—$332 more than the PCP model—making the bundled in- and outpatient costs of care about $50 more per patient in the hospitalist model.
And this is where the controversy—and the words—begins. Connecting the earlier discharge, the added SNF utilization, and the higher readmission rate could only mean only one thing to those that favor the traditional model—a cost shift. Clearly hospitalists, motivated by saving money, are shifting the financial costs just beyond the hospital confines, discharging patients so early that they require nursing home and, ultimately, more ED visits and hospital care.
On the other side of the ledger, HM supporters have pointed out that the patients in the two arms were not the same. The HM patients were more likely to be admitted from a nursing home, more comorbid, poorer, and more likely to be admitted on a weekend—all valid points, which are hard to control for in an observational study. They argue that patients in an SNF are, of course, less likely to see their PCP than patients at home and, therefore, more likely to be sent to an ED (and admitted) when issues arise. Perhaps, the argument goes, in this scenario the system is actually working. Without indicators of quality of life and functional status, it’s hard to know that HM patients didn’t do better. Sure, there were more readmissions and it cost more, but perhaps that’s the cost of better, longer-term outcomes.
My take: Let’s move beyond debating the study merits and its implications. HM is here to stay. No matter how much we conjure Osler, we aren’t going back to the traditional model. In the debate we miss the point. Rome is afire; it’s time to stop fiddling.
So, let’s put our preconceived biases, the potential methodological flaws, the conspiratorial overtones, the vitriolic banter, and the fruitless debates behind us. This study was generally well done. It focuses on a (perhaps, the) crucial issue for HM. And its findings are plausible. For that I say “thanks”: for exposing this issue so we can tackle it head on by moving in at least three distinct directions—quality, training, and retraining.