GRAPEVINE, Texas—The most successful companies tend to have superior branding. Starbucks owns coffee. Disney owns family fun. And hospitalists own patient-safety and quality-improvement (QI) initiatives within their hospitals.
“We were pretty confident that if we embraced this, we would have a clear running field to ourselves,” says Robert Wachter, MD, MHM, professor, chief of the Division of Hospital Medicine, and chief of the Medical Service at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, former SHM president, and author of the Wachter’s World blog. “No other physician field would do the same thing, and by owning the patient-safety field, we would distinguish ourselves.”
Now comes the really hard part, though.
Three keynote speakers at HM11—Dr. Wachter, AMA President Cecil Wilson, MD, and Robert Kocher, MD, a healthcare policy advisor to President Obama—pointed to hospitalists as the physician cohort that can help shepherd the conceptual reform passed last year by Congress into daily practice in America’s hospitals. And all three also point to HM’s role at the vanguard of patient safety as a primary reason why.
Hurdles will arise, Dr. Wilson says. A solo practitioner most of his career, he says hospitalists can play a key role in the coming years as more patients receive insurance, but looming doctor shortages could stymie the cause. While many caution that the flood of newly insured patients will overburden primary-care physicians (PCPs), the expected shortage of physicians will plague HM as well.
“Hospitalists are primary-care physicians; the vast majority of them are general internists,” Dr. Wilson says. “… So when we say that the number of people who are going into primary care, particularly general internal medicine, is reducing, that reduces not only the pool of physicians in the community, but also the hospitalist pool. We’re in that boat together.”
Dr. Kocher, director of the McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform in Washington, D.C., says hospitalists are in the best position to push for on-the-ground reform as they are the doctors who bridge all hospital departments, floors, and wards. He sees four broad areas where HM can take a particularly leading role:
- Increasing labor productivity. HM’s role as a link between specialties from cardiology to the pharmacy makes HM a natural conduit to push institutional values from a unique vantage point.
- Driving decision-making. Whether it’s recommending less costly drugs with similar outcomes, questioning whether expensive test batteries are truly necessary or being done for fear of missing something, or pausing to ask whether a “90-year-old hip replacement patient should receive orthopedic implants that will last far longer than their grandkids will be alive,” hospitalists can use their data to be a common-sense lynchpin of daily operations.
- Using technology to lower delivery costs. Many insurance companies are willing to enter into risk-based contracts with hospitals, but some hospital executives worry whether they will be able to perform well enough to justify the risk. “Hospitalists can help say, ‘We can do this. We can hit the thresholds.’ ”
- Shifting compensation models from “selling work RVUs to selling years of health.”
“The biggest thing [hospitalists] should begin doing,” Dr. Kocher adds, “is stop thinking about units of work, or RVUs, and start thinking about how much better patients can be by virtue of the care they’re delivering, how many readmissions are they avoiding, how many core measures/outcomes are they hitting, how much better is the patient experience, and how much smoother is the handoff.”
The push to improve quality and show better outcomes, of course, is intrinsically tied to payment reform. Bundled payments that reimburse a set fee for a case from pre-admission to a preset post-discharge deadline worry some hospitalists, who fear how the payments will be divvied up and who will be in charge of said payment decisions. Dr. Kocher says that even when the initial rules are set, the system is likely to evolve.
However, the hospitalist’s role as a driver of QI positions the field well, all three speakers noted. By quarterbacking patient handoffs and continuing to be seen by hospital executives as quality and safety leaders, HM groups can make the argument that they are worth the financial support they ask for in negotiations. Dr. Wachter adds that while quality research has become a staple of academics and residents, hospitalists should look to now tie value to the equation, effectively linking better patient outcomes to HM’s bottom line.
“There’s no question that physicians that can care for patients more efficiently, in a higher-quality way, in hospitals at lower costs, are going to do better no matter how the system evolves,” Dr. Kocher says. “I’m positive, as long as hospitalists are confident—and I think they should be—that they can deliver, more consistently, better care than those who aren’t hospitalists practicing in hospitals … and they’re going to do better economically.”