Stroke specialists like to say that “time is brain.” With an emphatic focus on those first few critical hours, however, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the vital role that hospitalists play in the days, weeks, and months that follow.
A recent study in The Neurohospitalist suggests that compared to community-based neurologists, practitioners of neurohospital medicine can reduce the length of stay for patients with ischemic stroke.1 A separate study, however, suggests that similar success might have come at a price for their less-specialized hospitalist counterparts.2 Among stroke patients, the latter study found that while the HM model is also associated with a reduced length of stay, it is associated with increased discharges to inpatient rehabilitation centers instead of to home, and higher readmission rates.
In sum, the evidence raises questions about whether rank-and-file hospitalists are adequately equipped to deal with a disease that is a core competency for the profession and ranks among the top sources of adult disability in the United States, at an estimated cost of $34.3 billion in 2008.3
“I think there’s been a mismatch between the training of the average hospitalist and then the expectations for the amount of neurological care they end up delivering once in practice,” says David Likosky, MD, SFHM, director of the stroke program at Evergreen Hospital Medical Center in Kirkland, Wash. “When surveyed, it’s been shown that hospitalists feel that care of stroke is one of the areas with which they’re least comfortable once they get out into practice.” Over the past decade, several studies have reinforced the notion of a training deficit.4,5
Demographic trends suggest that getting up to speed will be imperative, however. “One alarming thing we’re seeing is strokes among individuals that are not in the elderly group, and that group seems to be increasing at an alarming rate,” says Daniel T. Lackland, PhD, professor of epidemiology and neurosciences at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Hospitals are seeing more ischemic stroke patients in their 40s and 50s, likely a reflection of risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, and hyperlipidemia that are occurring earlier in life. And because those patients are younger, the aftermath of a stroke could linger for decades.
Although the stroke mortality rate is declining in the U.S., statistics find that about 14% of all patients diagnosed with an initial stroke will have a second one within a year, placing continued strain on a healthcare system already stretched thin.6 Hospitalists, Dr. Lackland says, have an “ideal” opportunity to help build up and improve that system, potentially yielding significant cost savings along with the dramatic improvement in quality of life. Making the most of that opportunity, though, will require a solid understanding of multiple trends that are quickly transforming stroke care delivery.
Time Is of the Essence
Kevin Barrett, MD, MSc, assistant professor of neurology and stroke telemedicine director at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., says hospitals are focusing more and more on a metric known as “door-to-needle time.” The goal is to treat at least half of incoming ischemic stroke patients with intravenous tissue-type plasminogen activator (IV tPA) within the first 60 minutes after onset of symptoms.
The American Heart Association/American Stroke Association has reinforced the message with its Get With the Guidelines Stroke Program. A recent analysis suggested the program has led to more timely tPA administration and, in turn, better patient outcomes (the program is funded in part through the Bristol-Myers Squib/Sanofi Pharmaceutical Partnership).7