Patient Care

The Comanagement Conundrum


The Comanagement Conundrum Dr. Ruhlen

As patient care grows ever more complex, driven by demographic shifts and regulatory trends, hospitalists around the country continue to worry about the “dumping” practices of referring surgeons and other specialists. Negative nicknames like “admitologist,” “dischargologist,” or “glorified resident” reflect the concerns of some veteran physicians who find themselves doing what they perceive as “scut work”—merely processing the surgeons’ patients through the hospitalization.

Comanagement has been proposed as a solution to improve both patient care and professional satisfaction. But its promise can be eroded if the arrangement isn’t well planned and executed, experts say. Comanagement requires clearly defined roles, collaborative professional relationships, and some sense of equal standing with the surgeons or other specialists who call on hospitalists to care for their hospitalized patients’ medical needs.

“The growing formalization of comanagement agreements stems from prior tendency by some to view hospitalists as glorified house staff,” says Christopher Whinney, MD, FACP, FHM, director of comanagement at The Cleveland Clinic. “Hospitalists feel this is inappropriate, based on our skill set and scope of practice. There is also a concern that if a hospitalist group jumps in to do this without a clear service agreement in writing, that is where dumping can become a problem.”

Dr. Whinney is one of two expert mentors for hospitalists under a new SHM demonstration project called the Hospitalist Orthopedic Patient Service Comanagement Program, which is gathering data to evaluate its effectiveness on clinical and other outcomes. He has been working with five of the 10 participating HM groups, helping them define what it means to institutionalize formal comanagement relationships.

“Whatever your personal feelings about the comanagement relationship, pro or con, comanagement is going to be part of most hospital medicine groups’ repertoire of services,” says Hugo Quinny Cheng, MD, director of the comanagement with neurosurgery service at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center. “You can try to avoid it, but if the medical center and the surgeons want it, there’s going to be pressure on your group to do it—or else they’ll look for another hospitalist group to do it.”

Dr. Cheng advises hospitalist group leaders make themselves aware of the trend and position themselves in a way to take advantage of it—or, at the very least, not be blindsided by it.

According to SHM data, 85% of hospitalist groups have done some kind of comanagement.1 It’s not explicitly listed by SHM as one of The Core Competencies in Hospital Medicine, but it might as well be, says Leslie Flores, MHA, SHM senior advisor, practice management, because aspects of comanagement are addressed throughout.2

Defined, Distinguished, Delineated

Comanagement is different from traditional medical consultations performed by hospitalists upon request, and also differs from cases in which the hospitalist is the admitting physician of record with sole management responsibilities while the patient is in the hospital. According to an SHM white paper, A Guide to Hospitalist/Orthopedic Surgery Comanagement, the concept involves shared responsibility, authority, and accountability for the care of hospitalized patients, typically with orthopedic surgeons or other specialties, and with the hospitalist managing the patient’s medical concerns, such as diabetes, congestive heart failure, or DVT.3 (SHM’s website is full of comanagement resources, including sample service agreements; visit and click on the “comanagement” button.)

But just as HM programs can be diverse in their organization, structure, and leadership, there is no single definition of comanagement, says Sylvia McKean, MD, SFHM, senior hospitalist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “You can have a very formal relationship where there’s a contract and where people are paid by whatever group is initiating the comanagement. There may be clear definitions in terms of their roles,” says Dr. McKean, an SHM board member who chaired the advisory panel that developed the comanagement white paper. “At the other extreme may be an informal relationship where you have a group of people in a community hospital who are available to manage medical problems when requested by specialists on a subset of patients.

“What really seems to distinguish comanagement from traditional medical consultations is that it implies equality in the relationship, even though the surgeon is often the attending of record,” as is practiced at Brigham and Women’s, Dr. McKean says. The comanaging hospitalist might follow the patient until discharge, rather than just seeing the patient once regarding the consultation question. “It’s more of a robust involvement of the hospitalist or internist, who really takes responsibility to make sure that medical conditions are actively managed, ideally before complications emerge.”

Eric Siegal, MD, SFHM, an intensivist with Aurora Medical Group in Wisconsin and an SHM board member, recommended developing comanagement services “carefully and methodically, paying close attention to consequences, intended and unintended”1 in a 2008 Journal of Hospital Medicine article. He tries to avoid broad generalizations about comanagement because “it’s applied variably across the industry. You’re going to find hospitalist programs that comanage very well and others that do it poorly.”

Dr. Siegal says he doesn’t think anyone in the field is “categorically anti-comanagement.”

However, he says it should be done thoughtfully, with clear goals in mind, and clearly defined roles and responsibilities. “Just showing up to see the specialists’ patients and calling it comanagement doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything to make those patients’ care better,” he says.


Demographic trends driving the spread of comanagement include an aging population of hospitalized patients with multiple comorbidities receiving surgical or other procedures that might not have been offered to them in the past. It fits with broader healthcare reform trends toward enhanced coordination and greater efficiency, illustrated by accountable-care organizations (ACOs).

Comanagement can be a growth and expansion opportunity for hospitalist groups, one that offers a defined niche and cements a group’s value to a hospital that wants improved relationships with surgeons. It also addresses the need for standardization and improved patient care in response to quality and safety concerns, and is associated with higher reported rates of satisfaction for surgeons and other staff and for patients.

“There are compelling reasons to do this, related to the limitations placed on resident work hours, which have affected neurosurgery and other surgical specialties profoundly, and the need to provide on-the-floor physician coverage more often and more consistently,” says UCSF hospitalist Andrew Auerbach, MD, MPH.

Comanagement has emerged as a solution to the challenge of caring for fragile patients with multiple medical comorbidities. ... Because busy surgeons cannot be in two places at once, comanagement allows for immediate availability of physicians with expertise in postoperative medical complications.—Sylvia McKean, MD, SFHM, senior hospitalist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, SHM board member

Dr. Auerbach is the lead author of a recently published study of the neurosurgery comanagement service at UCSF, which found that the program did not result in changes in patient mortality, readmission rates, or lengths of stay (LOS), although it was associated with reduced costs and perceptions of higher quality by professionals.5 Previous research has identified similar results with regard to increased professional satisfaction but without improvements in hard clinical outcomes.6

“Our paper supports the idea that clinical benefits to patients are not there yet,” Dr. Auerbach says. “Maybe we haven’t comanaged the right kinds of patients. Is there something else we have to think about? Maybe the real action is to be found post-hospitalization.”

Comanagement Caveats

In his landmark 2008 JHM article, Dr. Siegal pointed to potential drawbacks associated with comanagement. For example, surgeons, other specialists, and residents can become disengaged from the medical care of their hospitalized patients. He also noted the exacerbation of hospitalist and generalist manpower shortages, as well as the theoretical risk of fragmentation of care that is provided by multiple physician managers. If hospitalists are asked to do things that are outside of their skill set, that can be a problem, too. But the biggest concerns seem to center on the potential negative impact on job satisfaction.

“A fair and robust comanagement structure is an optimal delivery model,” says Christopher Massari, MD, hospitalist at PHMG/PeaceHealth Hospital in Springfield, Ore. “But because most hospitalist services are staffed 24/7, there’s a tendency for specialists and nurses to take advantage of hospitalists because they are ‘available.’ ”

Dr. Massari says he has experienced the “dumping” phenomenon firsthand. “It happens frequently. In the past few years, I have gradually developed the confidence and experience not to let it happen to me,” he says, “but I may inherit patients admitted by my hospitalist colleagues who may not feel as empowered or as skilled at avoiding it.”

Whatever your personal feelings about the comanagement relationship, pro or con, comanagement is going to be part of most hospital medicine groups’ repertoire of services.—Hugo Quinny Cheng, MD, director, comanagement with neurosurgery service, University of California at San Francisco Medical Center

Hospitalist dissatisfaction with comanagement is a problem with imperfect solutions, Dr. Cheng explains. “From my view, the biggest risk of comanagement is the inequality in relationships. Not every hospitalist has the temperament to do comanagement. If there is a perception that the partnership is unequal—favoring the surgeon—and if you feel like the junior partner in the relationship, it can be disheartening,” he says. “If the patient is not that sick, or if you feel you don’t have much to add professionally, it might feel like doing grunt work.”

Dr. Cheng also points to a theoretical increase in medical legal risk that the individual hospitalist faces. “With comanagement, you are taking responsibility not just for recommending care but for ensuring that the care is appropriately carried out, monitoring responses to treatment and dealing with delays,” he says. “When I talk to hospitalists, this fear of medical legal exposure comes up regularly.”

Rules of Engagement

SHM’s white paper offers a checklist of important issues to address when developing a comanagement service agreement. Issues include identifying champions from both sides of the collaboration, as well as from the hospital’s administration—which is an essential third party.

“Rules of engagement,” which should be spelled out in a written service agreement, include clarifying a shared vision, mutual goals and expectations, and the identified value proposition for both sides from the arrangement. Appropriate patients should be defined, along with what happens at night and on weekends, lines of authority and communication channels, and how conflicts will be addressed.

For Dr. McKean, the process really starts with “reflecting on your own core values.” Have a clear sense of the group’s goals, current staffing levels and pressures, and ability to add staff for a growing caseload, she says. “That’s where the rubber meets the road,” she adds. “You may want to hire people with a special interest in comanagement, and don’t try to have everyone in the group do everything.”

Jeanne Huddleston, MD, FACP, FHM, clinical scholar at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and past president of SHM, recommends dipping into the hospital’s database to get a better sense of the patient population targeted by a planned comanagement agreement—numbers, demographics, severity of illness, level of symptoms, length of stay, costs, and the like. Hospitalists also need to clearly understand the goals and needs of their comanagement partners—surgeons and other specialists—and of hospital administrators, who are an essential third party to the arrangement (see “What Hospitalists’ Comanagement Partners Are Saying,” above).

For Dr. Auerbach, the fundamental question is: “What are we specifically being asked to fix, and are we the right resource to fix the problem? Are we qualified to do it? Are we staffed to do it? Are we being given appropriate resources and authority to do it? And fundamentally, how are we going to know if we’ve made an improvement?” Quality metrics for comanagement—which should be gathered from the outset to provide a baseline—include in-hospital morbidity and mortality rates, 30-day mortality, hospital readmissions, length of hospital stay, costs of care, and overall return on investment for the hospital, as well as improved patient and professional satisfaction.

Experts agree that comanagement arrangements are unlikely to be self-sustaining from billing revenues alone, and thus will need some kind of support. In some cases, specialist groups can contribute the needed support, but more likely it is up to the hospital’s administration, based on its commitment to keeping its surgeons happy and busy in the operating suite, and on outcomes documenting financial and other benefits.

Applications of Comanagement by Hospitalists

Orthopedic surgery is the usual starting point for hospitalists, but other medical specialties offer viable opportunities for comanagement agreements. “I don’t think there’s any limit to comanagement relationships. I think they could work in any kind of surgical service you can imagine,” says Robert Wachter, MD, MHM, professor, chief of the Department of Medicine, and chief of the Division of Hospital Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, former SHM president, and author of the blog “Wachter’s World,” ( UCSF has a flourishing comanagement program with neurosurgery, and UCSF hospitalists also “comanage with other medical services for complex heart-failure patients and bone-marrow transplants.”

Other potential areas of comanagement include:

  • Gastroenterology;
  • ENT;
  • Psychiatry;
  • Cardiology;
  • Oncology and hematology;
  • Urology;
  • Dermatology; and
  • Stroke treatment.

In some cases, the hospitalist is not a generalist or internist but a specialist, such as a neurologist, an obstetrician/gynecologist, or a geriatrician, who has chosen to work full time in the hospital setting. “If you have a list of all the various specialties in medicine, there’s probably a hospitalist somewhere doing comanagement with each of them,” Dr. McKean says.—LB

Medicare currently pays surgeons a global fee to manage their patient’s care associated with the surgery. Hospitalist comanagers typically bill under different codes for managing the patient’s medical conditions. But in an era of heightened regulatory scrutiny, health reform, and increased bundling of payments, this approach could be in for some revision, says Michael Ruhlen, MD, MHCM, FACHE, SFHM, chief medical officer of Carolinas Medical Centers in Charlotte, N.C.

ACOs will receive a global fee and apportion it among all the providers involved in a given episode of care, perhaps returning to capitation as a method to accomplish the apportionment, Dr. Ruhlen says. Hospitalists now developing comanagement agreements with surgeons should be aware that such changes are on the horizon, requiring all of the parties involved to rethink how their agreements are structured. In such cases, clearly demonstrating the value of both parties’ contributions to comanagement will be essential, he says.

Professional Impact

For The Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Whinney, having a service agreement in place will help when physician reimbursement changes. “The thing you develop through these relationships is a sense of collegiality with your surgical colleagues, which is not something we’ve often seen before,” he says. “Particularly in large hospitals, where physicians don’t necessarily know each other, comanagement develops a true sense of collegiality.”

Felix Aguirre, MD, vice president of medical affairs for North Hollywood, Calif.-based IPC: The Hospitalist Company, says that a significant majority of hospitalized patients can benefit from an HM physician on the case.

“At IPC, we started with relationships [with the specialists], but as you go longer, you eventually move to more formal relationships, better defining what you are trying to do,” he says. “We’re still developing comanagement programs, and we’re trying to envision how they might relate to the readmission problem and to optimizing lengths of stay.”

Other industry leaders also ask how comanagement might contribute to the problem of hospital readmissions, perhaps with the hospitalist’s comanagement role continuing after the patient leaves the hospital. Others are exploring perioperative programs, broadly defined, with the hospitalist performing pre-operative assessments on an outpatient basis and helping to standardize processes and optimize the patient for surgery, thus reducing last-minute cancellations.

Ultimately, Dr. Huddleston says, these relationships should be built around putting the patient and the patient’s needs first, and patients don’t fit into neat boxes.

“Sometimes it’s comanagement, sometimes it’s just consultation. Each situation is discussed at the patient level,” she says. “As programs mature, all of these approaches can coexist. That’s where the service agreements become absolutely crucial, and they have to evolve as practice evolves. If you’re really basing it on patient need, you’ll probably end up with a hybrid of models.” TH

Larry Beresford is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif.


  1. Hospitalist co-management with surgeons and specialists. SHM website. Available at: Accessed March 11, 2011.
  2. The core competencies in hospital medicine. ShM website. Available at: Accessed March 11, 2011.
  3. SHM Co-Management Advisory Panel. A white paper on a guide to hospitalist/orthopedic surgery co-management, SHM website. Available at: March 11, 2011.
  4. Siegal EM. Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should: A call for the rational application of hospitalist comanagement. J Hosp Med. 2008;3(5):398-402.
  5. Auerbach AD, Wachter RM, Cheng HQ, Maselli J, McDermott M, Vittinghoff E, Burger MS. Comanagement of surgical patients between neurosurgeons and hospitalists. Arch Intern Med. 2010;170(22):2004-2010.
  6. Huddleston JM, Long KH, Naessens JM, et al. Medical and surgical comanagement after elective hip and knee arthroplasty: A randomized, controlled trial. Ann Intern Med. 2004;141(1):28-38.
  7. Pinzur MS, Gurza E, Kristopaitis T, et al. Hospitalist-orthopedic comanagement of high-risk patients undergoing lower extremity reconstruction surgery. Orthopedics. 2009; 32(7):495.

What Hospitalists’ Comanagement Partners Are Saying

Dr. Ruhlen

Depending on local setting, culture, and HM group, hospital administrators often are very supportive of comanagement relationships, particularly if they improve satisfaction for surgeons practicing at the hospital, says Michael Ruhlen, MD, MHCM, FACHE, SFHM, chief medical officer of Carolinas Medical Centers in Charlotte, N.C. But that support is not a blank check.

“Administrators want to know that comanagement creates positive effects on quality, efficiency, and throughput. In this day and age, facilities are under the gun from many directions to demonstrate such improvements. We’re also responsible for ensuring patient satisfaction,” says Dr. Ruhlen, who was a member of SHM’s comanagement advisory group.

Dr. Pinzur

Michael Pinzur, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago who was an advisory panel member, says the model for the comanagement agreement varies greatly from one facility to another. “There are some places where orthopedists want the hospitalists to do their scut work,” he says. “For us, we wanted to work together.

“When we developed our comanagement program for hip fracture patients, at the urging of the hospital’s administrators, we had an idea that this was a marriage both of us would benefit from,” he says.7 “As our hospitalists learned the unique needs of our patient population, we learned from their experience and then changed some of our treatment algorhythms. And they learned from us. We see this as real comanagement. Somebody from our group meets with one of the hospitalists every day, and periodically we sit down together and talk about our care processes. … They’re so in tune with issues of the orthopedic surgeon, they do very little unwanted testing.”

Dr. Boynton

For Melbourne Boynton, MD, clinical director of Vermont Orthopedic Clinic in Rutland and a member of the Board of Councilors of the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons, what’s most important is what matters to the patient.

“Optimal comanagement is a team approach,” he says, and it has worked well at Rutland Regional Medical Center.

However, it is more informal, rather than under a specific service agreement, because variable situations arise with elderly patients.

“There isn’t much that can’t get fixed with communication, and with focusing on what you’d want for your own mother in this situation,” he says. Which service is primary depends on how active a role each has in the patient’s care. “The quality of care is what matters, not whose service the patient is on.”—LB

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