For most of my medical career, the hospital functioned more as a swap meet, where every physician had his or her own booth, than as an integrated, community health resource with a focused mission. Although the innovation of HM might be counted as the beginning of a new, more aligned approach between physicians and the hospital as an institution, the rapidly evolving employment of physicians by hospitals and the focusing of physician practice primarily on inpatient care has taken this to another level.
The New Paradigm
A number of recent surveys by physician recruitment firms and physician management companies have found that less than 25% of physicians are self-employed. Planned changes to insurance and Medicare reimbursement for healthcare have driven cardiologists, orthopedists, surgeons, and many other physicians, who want to protect their flow of patients and dollars, to readily become hospital or large-group-practice employees. The entrance of accountable-care organizations (ACOs) to the landscape and the greater need for physician and hospital alignment have only accelerated this trend.
At the same time, the growth of all sorts of hospitalist specialties has further changed the medical staff of the hospital. Internal-medicine and family-practice hospitalists now number more than 35,000. There are probably more than 2,000 pediatric hospitalists. The newly formed Society of OB/GYN Hospitalists (SOGH) estimates there are more than 1,500 so-called laborists in the U.S., and there are several hundred neurohospitalists, orthopedic hospitalists, and acute-care surgeons.
It is clear to me that a “home team” for the hospital of the future is developing, and it includes hospitalists, ED physicians, critical-care physicians, and the growing panoply of hospital-employed cardiologists and surgeons. There is an opportunity for alignment and integration in what has been a fragmented delivery of healthcare.
On the commercial side of the equation, this new opportunity for physician-hospital alignment might allow for a new distribution of compensation. It already is common for hospitals to be transferring some of “their” Medicare Part A dollars to hospitalists. With penalties or additional payments in the ACO model (e.g. shared savings) or in value-based purchasing, there certainly are mechanisms to redistribute funding to new physician compensation models, based more on performance than on volume of services (i.e. the old productivity model).
On another level, where compensation and performance merge, the new medical staff has the ability to deliver a safer hospital experience to our patients and to improve performance. This could take the form of reduction in hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) or reducing unnecessary DVTs and PEs. It could take the form of a better discharge process that leads to fewer unnecessary readmissions or fewer preventable ED visits. On the OB side, 24-hour on-site availability of OB hospitalists has been shown to reduce adverse birth events and, therefore, reduce liability risk and malpractice premiums. On-site availability for patients with fractures and trauma cases by orthopedic hospitalists or hospital-employed orthopedists also can reduce expenses and adverse events for these acutely ill patients.
With all these changes occurring so rapidly and with all these new players being thrown into the stew at the hospital, it may be worth a few minutes for the “traditional” hospitalist on the medical service to step back and see how our role may evolve. We already have an increasing role in comanagement of surgical and subspecialty patients, as well as a more integrated role at the ED-hospitalist interface. As hospitals look for hospital-focused physicians, there is a potential for scope creep that must be thoughtfully managed.
This may require “rules of engagement” with other key services. While it may be appropriate for a patient with an acute abdomen to be admitted to the hospitalist service, if the hospitalist determines that this patient needs surgery sooner rather than later, there needs to be a straightforward way to get the surgeon in house and on the case and the patient to the operating room. To this point, medical hospitalists can help manage the medical aspects of a neurosurgical case, but we don’t do burr holes. And if there is to be pushback from the surgeon, this can’t happen at 2 a.m. over the telephone; it must be handled by the service leaders at their weekly meeting.
On another level, hospitalists need to be careful that the hospital doesn’t just hand us the administrative functions of other physicians’ care. Hospitalists are not the default to do H&Ps on surgical cases or handle their discharges, even if this falls into the hospital strategy to be able to employ fewer high-priced surgeons and subspecialists by handing off some of their work to their hospitalists.
On the other hand, it is totally appropriate for many of the hospital-focused physicians to come together, possibly under the leadership of the hospital CMO, to look at the workflow and to set up a new way to deliver healthcare that not only redefines the workload, but also involves the rest of the team, including nursing, pharmacy, case management, and social services. Medical hospitalists will need to consider whether we should be the hub of the new physician enterprise and what that would mean for workload, FTEs, and scope of practice.
Such organizations as SHM and the American Hospital Association (AHA) are thinking how best to support and convene the hospital-based physician. AHA has developed a Physician Forum with more than 6,000 members who now have their practices aligned with their hospital. SHM has held meetings of the leaders of hospital-focused practice and is developing virtual forums on Hospital Medicine Exchange to keep the discussion going. Through the Hospital Care Collaborative (HCC), SHM is engaging the leadership of pharmacy, nursing, case management, social services, and respiratory therapy.
Although we are still early in creating the direction for the new medical staff, the water is rising and the current is moving rapidly. The strong forces that are driving new payment paradigms are leading to changes in compensation and an emphasis on definable, measureable outcomes of performance and safety. Hospitalists, who have been thinking in this way and who have some experience in the new ways, should be well positioned to lead and participate actively in the formation of the new hospital home team.
When opportunity knocks, you still have to get up and answer the door. It’s time to get ready to step up.
Dr. Wellikson is CEO of SHM.