Massachusetts Hospitalists Experiment with Unit-Based Rounding


Today marks the end of the second week of a three-month experiment we are embarking on to improve team-based care. The main elements of our experiment are two early career hospitalists dedicated to a single nursing unit who are present on the unit throughout the day, structured multidisciplinary rounds, pharmacists doing medication histories to help with medical reconciliation, and a veteran hospitalist serving as a coach, broadly overseeing care coordination and throughput on the unit. (I’m going to focus on multidisciplinary care and leave the coaching part for another day.)

Many have written about and many more have tried to establish unit-based hospitalist models, where a hospitalist is assigned to a single nursing unit. These models often incorporate multidisciplinary rounds, where the hospitalist, case management, social services, physical therapy, and perhaps pharmacy meet each day and review each patient’s progress through the hospitalization. The underlying premise for establishing a unit-based model is that all, or nearly all, of the hospitalist’s patients are located on the nursing unit.

It Can’t Be That Hard

Dedicated units and multidisciplinary rounds are designed to achieve better coordination between the hospitalists and the other members of the hospital team. Most healthcare professionals intuitively support this model; however, many hospitalists have concerns.

To provide the best care for their patients while maintaining career satisfaction, these hospitalists may feel the need for flexibility—the ability to be independent and roam unrestricted through the hallways and departments of the hospital. This goal can be at odds with being limited to a single nursing unit.

For these hospitalists to support the unit-based model, there had better be good reasons for doing so.

Multidisciplinary rounds must be tightly organized, with case manager, nurse, and hospitalist providing input concisely. Average time per patient should not exceed about three minutes. The total time for rounds, no matter how many patients are under discussion, should not exceed one hour.

Measuring the Effects of Teamwork

Jody Hoffer Gittell, PhD, a professor of management at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., has studied relational coordination extensively in healthcare and other service industries. Relational coordination can be defined as “coordinating work through relationships of shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect, supported by frequent, timely, accurate, problem-solving communication.”1

Dr. Gittell has developed a validated questionnaire to be completed by each member of the healthcare team, quantifying their perspective on these dimensions for others on the team. I think of relational coordination as a rigorous way of quantifying teamwork.

In 2008, Dr. Gittell published an observational study with SHM senior vice president Joe Miller and hospitalist leader Adrienne L. Bennett, MD, PhD, conducted at a suburban Boston hospital.2 The study looked at relational coordination between members of the hospital team under hospitalist care compared to traditional, PCP-based hospital care. They measured relational coordination by asking the attending physician (hospitalist or PCP providing hospital care), medical resident, floor nurse, case manager, social worker, and therapist (occupational, physical, respiratory, speech) to complete questionnaires about the other team members for a cohort of patients.

The study concluded that relational coordination between other members of the team and the physician was significantly higher for patients treated by hospitalists than for patients treated by traditional PCPs. Further, they found that as relational coordination increased, for patients treated either by hospitalists or PCPs, length of stay, cost, and 30-day readmission rates decreased. I will add that the hospitalists were not unit-based in this study, but were assumed to be more available to the care team than traditional PCPs.

Subsequent studies of multidisciplinary rounds on a “hospitalist unit” conducted by Kevin O’Leary, MD, and colleagues at Northwestern University in Chicago have demonstrated a favorable effect on nurses’ ratings of teamwork and collaboration, as well as the rate of adverse events.3,4 The former study did not, however, find decreased costs or length of stay.

Keys to Success

Before our current experiment, I’ve had the privilege to witness, both at my home institution and at a number of outside ones, many permutations of multidisciplinary rounds and unit-based hospitalists. I’ve seen failures, some mixed results, and occasional success stories. In all cases, participants seem to agree that it takes extra effort to execute on this model, especially once the initial enthusiasm wanes. So, for these arrangements to succeed over time, including our current experiment, I see the following four factors as critical:

  1. Multidisciplinary rounds must be tightly organized, with case manager, nurse, and hospitalist providing input concisely. Average time per patient should not exceed about three minutes. The total time for rounds, no matter how many patients are under discussion, should not exceed one hour.
  2. Each team member must be prepared to provide critical information for rounds. For example, hospitalists and nurses should have seen/reviewed their patients, case managers should know expected length of stay and key disposition information, and pharmacists should know medical histories and other pertinent information.
  3. The fundamental concern of multidisciplinary rounds—that someone’s time is being wasted (when not talking about that team member’s patient at that moment)—must be mitigated one way or another. Solutions include rotating nurses or hospitalists in and out of rounds, and allowing hospitalists to enter orders and do other discreet multitasking during rounds. Careful attention to showing up for the rounds on time and on cue is crucial.
  4. Hospitalist autonomy and need to roam has to be programmed in by allowing them time to get off the unit, see the broader world, and interact with colleagues.

At the conclusion of three months, as a QI project (as opposed to rigorous research), we will measure a number of things, including cost, throughput, patient satisfaction, and team member satisfaction with the model. If you have predictions, please e-mail me. I’ll report our results in a subsequent column.

Dr. Whitcomb is medical director of healthcare quality at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass. He is co-founder and past president of SHM. E-mail him at wfwhit@comcast.net.


  1. Relational Coordination Research Collaborative. Brandeis University website. Available at: http://rcrc.brandeis.edu/about-rc/What%20is%20Relational%20Coordination.html. Accessed September 23, 2013.
  2. Gittell JH, Weinberg DB, Bennett AL, Miller JA. Is the doctor in? A relational approach to job design and the coordination of work. Hum Resource Manag J. 2008;47(4):729-755.
  3. O’Leary KJ, Haviley C, Slade ME, Shah HM, Lee J, Williams MV. Improving teamwork: impact of structured interdisciplinary rounds on a hospitalist unit. J Hosp Med. 2011;6(2):88-93.
  4. O’Leary KJ, Buck R, Fligiel HM, et al. Structured interdisciplinary rounds in a medical teaching unit: improving patient safety. Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(7):678-684.

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