Clinical Care Conundrums

Is Hospitalist Proficiency in Bedside Procedures in Decline?


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Hospitalists learn techniques in invasive procedures and portable ultrasound at HM10 in Washington, D.C. The four-hour training pre-courses routinely rank as annual-meeting favorites.

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Hospitalists learn techniques in invasive procedures and portable ultrasound at HM10 in Washington, D.C. The four-hour training pre-courses routinely rank as annual-meeting favorites.

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Hospitalists learn techniques in invasive procedures and portable ultrasound at HM10 in Washington, D.C. The four-hour training pre-courses routinely rank as annual-meeting favorites.

It’s 3:30 p.m. You’ve seen your old patients, holdovers, and an admission, but you haven’t finished your notes yet. Lunch was an afterthought between emails about schedule changes for the upcoming year. Two pages ring happily from your belt, the first from you-know-who in the ED, and the next from a nurse: “THORA SUPPLIES AT BEDSIDE SINCE THIS AM—WHEN WILL THIS HAPPEN?” The phone number on the wall for the on-call radiologist beckons...

An all-too-familiar situation for hospitalists across the country, this awkward moment raises a series of difficult questions:

Should I set aside time from my day to perform a procedure that could be time-consuming?

  • Do I feel confident I can perform this procedure safely?
  • Am I really the best physician to provide this service?
  • As hospitalists are tasked with an ever-increasing array of responsibilities, answering the call of duty for bedside procedures is becoming more difficult for some.

A Core Competency

“The Core Competencies in Hospital Medicine,” authored by a group of HM thought leaders, was published as a supplement to the January/February 2006 issue of the Journal of Hospital Medicine. The core competencies include such bedside procedures as arthrocentesis, paracentesis, thoracentesis, lumbar puncture, and vascular (arterial and central venous) access (see “Core Competencies in Hospital Medicine: Procedures,” below). Although the authors stressed that the core competencies are to be viewed as a resource rather than as a set of requirements, the inclusion of bedside procedures emphasized the importance of procedural skills for future hospitalists.

“[Hospitalists] are in a perfect spot to continue to perform procedures in a structured manner,” says Joshua Lenchus, DO, RPh, FACP, FHM, associate director of the University of Miami-Jackson Memorial Hospital (UM-JMH) Center for Patient Safety. “As agents of quality and safety, hospitalists should continue to perform this clinically necessary service.”

Jeffrey Barsuk, MD, FHM, associate professor of medicine at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago and an academic hospitalist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital (NMH), not only agrees that bedside procedures should be a core competency, but he also says hospitalists are the most appropriate providers of these services.

“I think this is part of hospital medicine. We’re in the hospital, [and] that’s what we do,” Dr. Barsuk says. Other providers, such as interventional radiologists, “really don’t understand why I’m doing [a procedure]. They understand it’s safe to do it, but they might not understand all the indications for it, and they certainly don’t understand the interpretation of the tests they’re sending.”

Despite the goals set forth by the core competencies and authorities in procedural safety, the reality of who actually performs bedside procedures is somewhat murky and varies greatly by institution. Many point to HM program setting (urban vs. rural) or structure (academic vs. community) to explain variance, but often it is other factors that determine whether hospitalists are actually preforming bedside procedures regularly.

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Team Hospitalist member Josh Lenchus, DO, RPh, FACP, SFHM (right), associate director of the Center for Patient Safety at the University of Miami-Jackson Memorial Hospital, explains advanced ultrasound techniques to a trainee.

Where Does HM Perform Procedures?

Community hospitalists, with strong support from interventional radiologists and subspecialists, often find it more efficient—even necessary, considering their patient volumes—to leave procedures to others. Community hospitalists with ICU admitting privileges, intensivists, and other HM subgroups say that being able to perform procedures should be a prerequisite for employment. Hospitalists in rural communities say they are doing procedures because they are “the only game in town.”

“Sometimes you are the only one available, and you are called upon to stretch your abilities,” says Beatrice Szantyr, MD, FAAP, a community hospitalist and pediatrician in Lincoln, Maine, who has practiced most of her career in rural settings.

Academic hospitalists in large, research-based HM programs can, paradoxically, find themselves performing fewer procedures as residents often take the lead on the majority of such cases. Conversely, academic hospitalists in large, nonteaching programs often find themselves called on to perform more bedside procedures.

Dr. Szantyr

No matter the setting, the simplicity of being the physician to recognize the need for a procedure, perform it, and interpret the results is undeniably efficient and “clean,” according to authorities on inpatient bedside procedures. Having to consult other physicians, optimize the patient’s lab values to their standards (a common issue with interventional radiologists), and adhere to their work schedules can often delay procedures unnecessarily.

[Hospitalists] are in a perfect spot to continue to perform procedures in a structured manner. As agents of quality and safety, hospitalists should continue to perform this clinically necessary service.

—Joshua Lenchus, DO, RPh, FACP, FHM, associate director, University of Miami-Jackson Memorial Hospital (UM-JMH) Center for Patient Safety

“Hospitalists care for floor and ICU patients in many hospitals, and the inability to perform bedside procedures delays patient care,” says Dr. Nilam Soni, an academic hospitalist at the University of Chicago and a recognized expert on procedural safety.

Dr. Soni notes that when it comes to current techniques, many hospitalists suffer from a knowledge deficit. “The introduction of ultrasound for guidance of bedside procedures has been shown to improve the success and safety of certain procedures,” he says, “but the majority of practicing hospitalists did not learn how to use ultrasound for procedure guidance during residency.”

Heterogeneity of Training, Experience, and Skill

While all hospitalists draw upon different bases of training and experience, the heterogeneity of training, confidence, and inherent skill is greatest when it comes to bedside procedures. Mirroring the heterogeneity at the individual level, hospitalist programs vary greatly on the requirements placed on their staffs in regards to procedural skill and privileging.

Such research-driven programs as Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) in Boston often find requiring maintenance of privileges in bedside procedures to be difficult, says Sally Wang, MD, FHM, director of procedural education at BWH. In fact, a new procedure service being created there will be staffed mainly with ED physicians. On the flipside, most community hospitalist programs leave the task of procedural “policing” to the hospital’s medical staff affairs office.

At the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) Medical Center, the HM group is instituting a division standard in which hospitalists maintain privileging and proficiency in a core group of bedside procedures. Other large hospitalist groups have created “proceduralist” subgroups that shoulder the burden of trainee education, as well as provide a resource for less skilled or less experienced inpatient providers.

Dr. Wang

“If you have a big group, you could have a dedicated procedure service and have a core group of hospitalists who are experts in procedure,” Dr. Barsuk says. “But it needs to be self-sustaining.” Once started, Dr. Barsuk says, proceduralist groups would continue to provide hospitals with ongoing return-on-investment (ROI) benefit.

Variability in procedure volume and payor mix, however, can make it hard for HM groups to demonstrate to hospital leadership a satisfactory ROI for a proceduralist program. Financial backing from grant support or a high-volume procedure—such as paracentesis in hospitals with large hepatology programs—can nurture starting proceduralist programs until all procedural revenues can justify the costs. Lower ROI can also be justified by showing improvement in quality indices—such as CLABSI rates—reduced time to procedures, and reduced costs compared to other subspecialists offering similar services.

“I’m of the firm belief that we can reduce costs by doing the procedures at the bedside rather than referring them to departments such as interventional radiology (IR),” Dr. Barsuk says. “What you would have to do is show the institution that it costs more money to have IR do [bedside procedures].”

National Response

I’m of the firm belief that we can reduce costs by doing the procedures at the bedside rather than referring them to departments such as interventional radiology.

—Jeffrey Barsuk, MD, MS, FHM, associate professor of medicine, Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, academic hospitalist, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago

Filling in the procedural training gaps found on the local level, such national organizations as SHM have stepped in to provide education and support for hospitalists yearning for training. Since its inception, an SHM annual meeting pre-course that focuses on hand-held ultrasound and invasive procedures has consistently been one of the first to sell out. Other national organizations, such as ACP and its annual meeting, have seen similar interest in their courses on ultrasound-guided procedures.

The popularity of this continuing education bears out a worrisome trend: Hospitalists feel they are losing their procedural skills. An online survey conducted by The Hospitalist in May 2011 found that a majority of respondents (62%) had experienced deterioration of their procedural skills in the past five years; only 25% said they experienced improvement over the same period.

Historically, general internists have claimed bedside procedures as their domain. As stated dispassionately in the 1978 book The House of God, “There is no body cavity that cannot be reached with a #14G needle and a good strong arm.”1 Yet much has changed since Samuel Shem’s apocryphal description of medical residency training.

Most notably, the Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) has not only progressively restricted inpatient hours and patient loads for residents, but also increased the requirements for outpatient training. Some feel the balance of inpatient and outpatient training has tipped too far toward the latter in medicine residency programs, especially in light of the growing popularity of the hospitalist career path amongst new residency program graduates. This stands in contrast to ED training programs, which have embraced focused procedures training more readily.

“Adult care appears to be diverging into two career tacks as a result of external forces, of which we have limited control over, “ says Michael Beck, MD, a pediatric and adult hospitalist at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa. “With new career choices emerging for graduates, the same square-peg, round-hole residency training should not exist.”

Dr. Beck

Dr. Beck advocates continuing an ongoing trend of “track” creation in residency programs, which allow trainees to focus training on their planned career path. Hospitalist tracks already exist in many medicine programs, including those at Cleveland Clinic and Northwestern. But many other factors limit the opportunity for trainees to obtain experience with bedside procedures, including competition with nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Even the increasing availability of ancillary phlebotomy and IV-start teams can increase a resident’s anxiety about procedures.

Survey Shows Procedural Decline

A May 2011 survey at asked hospitalists if their procedural skills had improved, deteriorated, or remained steady in the past five years; 126 responded. The results: Source:

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Dr. Szantyr

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Dr. Szantyr

“By the time my residency was over [in 1993] and the work restrictions were beginning, hospital employees were doing all these tasks, making the residents less comfortable with hurting a patient when it was therapeutically necessary,” says Katharine Deiss, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. Interns who came from medical schools without extensive ancillary services in their teaching hospitals, she adds, were more comfortable with invasive procedures.

Dr. Deiss

ACGME has sent a subtle message by decreasing emphasis on procedural skills by eradicating the requirement of showing manual proficiency in most bedside procedures as a requirement for certification. The omission has left individual residency programs and hospitalist groups to determine training and proficiency requirements for more invasive bedside procedures without a national standard.

In an editorial in the March 2007 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, F. Daniel Duffy, MD, and Eric Holmboe, MD, wrote that the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) could only give a “qualified ‘yes’” to the question of whether residents should be trained in procedures they may not perform in practice. Although the authors asserted that the relaxed ABIM policy was “an important but small step toward revamping procedure skill training during residency,” others say it portrays an image of the ABIM de-emphasizing the importance of procedural training.

In addition, the recently established Focused Practice in Hospital Medicine (FPHM) pathway to ABIM Maintenance of Certification (MOC) has no requirement to show proficiency in bedside procedures.

“The absence of the procedural requirement in no way constitutes a statement that procedural skills are not important,” says Jeff Wiese, MD, FACP, SFHM, associate professor of medicine and residency program director at Tulane University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, chair of the ABIM Hospital Medicine MOC Question Writing Committee, and former SHM president. “Rather, it is merely a practical issue with respect to making the MOC process applicable to all physicians engaged in hospital medicine (i.e. many hospitalists do not do procedures) while still making the MOC focused on the skill sets that are common for physicians doing hospital medicine.”

Dr. Szantyr

Once released into the world, even if trained well in residency, hospitalists can find it difficult to maintain their skills. In community and nonteaching settings, the pressure to admit and discharge in a timely manner can make procedures seem like the easiest corner to cut. Before long, it has been months since they have laid eyes on a needle of any sort. Many begin to develop performance anxiety.

In teaching hospitals, academic hospitalists often are called upon to participate in quality improvement (QI) and research efforts, which take time away from clinical rotations. Once there, it can be easy for a ward attending to rely upon a well-trained resident to supervise interns doing procedures. The lack of first-hand or even supervisory experience can lead to many academic hospitalists losing facility with procedures, with potentially disastrous results.

“In order to supervise a group of residents, the attending needs to be technically proficient and able to salvage a botched, or failed, procedure,” UM-JMH’s Dr. Lenchus says. “To this end, we strictly limit who can attend on the service.”

So what’s a residency or HM program director to do in the face of wavering support nationally, and sometimes locally, for maintaining procedural skills for hospitalists and trainees? Many hospitalists in teaching hospitals say it’s critical for clinicians to “get their own house in order,” to maintain procedural standards of proficiency with ongoing training, education, and verification.

“The profession now needs to redesign procedural training across the continuum of education and a lifetime of practice,” Drs. Duffy and Holmboe editorialized in the March 2007 Annals paper. “This approach would recognize the varied settings of internal-medicine practice and offer manual skills training to those whose practice settings require such skills.” Hospitalists can partner with medicine residency program leaders to provide procedural education and training to residents, either as a standalone elective or as a more general resource.

Hospitalists in such teaching hospitals as UCSD, Brigham and Women’s, UM-JMH, and Northwestern are leading efforts to provide procedural education to medical students, residents, and attendings. Training takes many forms, including formal procedural electives, required procedure rotations, or even brief one- or two-day courses in procedural skills at a simulation center.

Utilizing simulation training has been shown in many studies to be helpful in establishing procedural skills in learners of all training levels. Dr. Barsuk and his colleagues at Northwestern published studies in the Journal of Hospital Medicine in 2008 and 2009 showing that simulation training of residents was effective in improving skills in thoracentesis and central venous catheterization, respectively.3,4

In the community hospital setting, requirements for procedural skills can vary greatly based on the institution. For those community programs requiring procedural skills of their hospitalists, the clear definition of procedural training and requirements at the time of hiring is critical. Even after vetting a hospitalist’s procedural skills at hire, however, community programs should consider monitoring procedural skills and provide ongoing time and money for CME focused on procedural skills.

Currently, most hospitals depend on the honesty of individual physicians during the privileging process for bedside procedures. Even when the skills of physicians begin to wane, most are reluctant to voluntarily give up their procedure privileges.

“I think it would be pretty unusual for a hospitalist to relinquish their privileges,” Dr. Barsuk admits. But ideally, physicians who relinquish their privileges due to lack of experience could get retrained in simulation centers, then reproctored in order to regain their privileges. Northwestern established the Center for Simulation Technology and Immersive Learning as a resource for simulation training both locally and nationally.

Establishing an environment that supports hospitalists performing bedside procedures is critical. This includes the need to limit hospitalist workload to ensure adequate time to meet the procedural needs of patients. Providing easy access to the tools necessary to perform bedside procedures (e.g. portable ultrasound and pre-packaged procedure trays) helps avoid additional hurdles.

Academic hospitalist programs can serve as a regional resource by developing ongoing procedure mastery programs for hospitalists in their communities, as many smaller institutions do not have the resources to provide ongoing training in bedside procedures. This process can be tedious, but it should not be humiliating.

If the popularity of the SHM pre-course in bedside ultrasound and procedures is any indication, when given the opportunity to receive protected time for procedure training, most hospitalists will likely jump at the chance.

Dr. Chang is an associate clinical professor of medicine in the division of hospital medicine at Diego Medical Center. He is also a member of Team Hospitalist.

Core Competencies in Hospital Medicine: Procedures

Released in 2006, SHM’s “The Core Competencies in Hospital Medicine: A Framework for Curriculum Development” outlined the following procedures as paramount to training future hospitalists and continuing medical education curriculums:

  • Arthrocentesis
  • Chest radiograph
  • interpretation
  • Electrocardiogram interpretation
  • Emergency procedures
  • Lumbar puncture
  • Paracentesis
  • Thoracentesis
  • Vascular access

Check out all 51 core competencies at


  1. Shem S. The House of God. New York: Dell Publishing; 1978.
  2. Duffy FD, Holmboe ES. What procedures should internists do? Ann Intern Med. 2007;146(5):392-393.
  3. Wayne DB, Barsuk JH, O’Leary KJ, Fudala MJ, McGaghie WC. Mastery learning of thoracentesis skills by internal medicine residents using simulation technology and deliberate practice. J Hosp Med. 2008;3(1):48-54.
  4. Barsuk JH, McGaghie WC, Cohen ER, Balachandran JS, Wayne DB. Use of simulation-based mastery learning to improve the quality of central venous catheter placement in a medical intensive care unit. J Hosp Med. 2009;4(7):397–403.

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