Although it was more than a decade ago (the last century, in fact), I remember it like it was yesterday. It was my first month as chief resident at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, our 335-bed hospital, with the ED chair and my chair of medicine in a heated argument. Very heated. There was no yelling; it was the kind of discussion where, even as a kid, you knew the severely stern voices meant that this was beyond the yelling stage.
“Medicine patients clog up my ED. Your docs take hours to arrive and then hours more on the workup,” the ED chair said. “They block and delay. Patients are suffering.”
“If your ED knew who to admit to which service, we wouldn’t have to spend hours figuring out where to admit them. We have a lot of work upstairs; we’re not sitting around waiting for the ED to call,” my chair replied.
They both were right, of course.
The ED chair had internal data that showed medicine did, in fact, cause delays, hours and hours of delays, every day. The department of medicine had concrete examples of less-than-ideal disposition decisions that, in hindsight, could have been done better (and sometimes a lot better).
This was the late 1990s, and all of us were just beginning to understand the adverse impact that ED boarding (admissions stuck in the ED) has on patients and our institution. Over the last decade, a number of studies have proved the fears we had in the 1990s right: From increased pain to higher mortality, admitted patients suffer when they need to be “upstairs” but are stuck in the ED.1-4
Prior to this meeting of chairmen, we tried multiple “ED fixes” over the years. Like so many other institutions, we mandated medicine physician response times to the ED, drew policies, sent memos, and even gave the ED admitting privileges to medicine. None of them worked. Culture and cultural divide trumped policy every time, and the more than 100 house staff and attendings, both in the ED and in medicine, never made a change that positively impacted ED boarding during my entire three-year residency.
In hindsight, that’s not surprising. There has been a lot of study on ED flow and quality improvement (QI) more broadly.5-8 To expect individuals to “do better” in a broken system is asking for failure. Asking hundreds of physicians to change behavior is an exercise in futility, especially when resources are limited and systems force “silo” behavior. Even drastic measures, such as expanding total ED capacity, don’t impact ED flow favorably. Institutions must find ways to open the “admission door.”
To the Rescue
Mirroring the rest of the country, in the late 1990s, a new group of doctors were being hired at my hospital. Ex-chief residents were staying on a year or two to run a new inpatient service. Although hospitalists were still new at the time, the idea to give them the “admission problem” took about a nanosecond.
Hospitalists across the country have become adept at tackling many institutional challenges, from readmissions (think Project BOOST) to teaching attendings from comanagement to neuromanagement. If it happens inside the walls of the hospital (and sometimes outside), hospitalists likely have played an important role in making it better somewhere.
Our hospitalists became a vital partner with the ED and within our own department of medicine, of course. We did the usual: seeing inpatients. But we also began experimenting with new and radical ways to get admitted patients out of the ED and upstairs as quickly as possible. We tried a number of admission systems, and many failed initially. We learned important lessons from the failures and continued to innovate.
Soon, hospitalists were successfully triaging admitted patients to all of general medicine using a combination of telephone and in-person triage based on the needs of the patient. This process had the triage hospitalist doing a limited ED assessment and then assigning the admission duties, often done after transfer upstairs to the best available medicine team, including the four house staff inpatient teams and hospitalist group. Later, this hospitalist admission process was expanded to all of medicine, using hospitalists to triage to the ICUs as well as specialty units in addition to general medicine. The hospital dedicated large amounts of money to allow a dedicated triage shift 24-7, staffed exclusively by hospitalists. A few years later, the hospitalists developed an in-house Web-based triage program, allowing accurate tracking of the more than 14,000 admissions annually.
The results have been better than anyone could have imagined 15 years ago. ED length of stay for admitted patients has continued to decrease dramatically—by hours, not minutes. Certain types of ambulance diversion (red alert in the state of Maryland) that were commonplace a decade ago, to the tune of 2,000-plus hours a year, virtually have been eliminated. Since ambulance diversion is known to harm patients and drive away business, this was a true win for patients as well as our hospital.9 Our ED volumes continued to grow, and patient-care indicators show the care provided by the current admissions process is at least as safe as before.
Hospitalists partnering with EDs to improve the admissions process are not isolated to Johns Hopkins Bayview. Many hospitalist leaders recognize that there are a variety of options for improving the care our patients get during the admissions process:
- Virginia Commonwealth University’s hospitalist group, led by Dr. Heather Masters, has worked tirelessly for years on a triage program.
- Dr. Melinda Kantsiper has done something similar at Howard County General Hospital in Maryland.
- Dr. MaryEllen Pfeiffer of Wellspan in York, Pa., is launching a triage program for admissions in the fall, and Dr. Christine Soong has focused on educating her house staff on the triage process at Mount Sinai in Toronto.
The Institute of Medicine reports that 91% of EDs are crowded routinely, an issue unlikely to go away on its own. I believe that hospitalists hold the key to unlocking the “admission door.” Hospitalists are critical partners in quality improvement, including ED flow, and can positively impact our patients, our institutions, and our specialty.
If that’s not enough to convince you, then let me tell you the true story of how the Hopkins Bayview ED physicians and hospitalists became close colleagues and the time I had Thanksgiving dinner at the ED chairman’s house. It was a lovely dinner, really.
Dr. Howell is president of SHM, chief of the division of hospital medicine at Johns Hopkins Bayview in Baltimore, and spends a significant part of his time and research on hospital operations. Email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Chaflin DB, Trzeciak S, Likourezos A, Baumann BM, Dellinger RP. Impact of delayed transfer of critically ill patients from the ED to the ICU. Crit Care Med. 2007;35(6):1477-1483.
- Duke G, Green J, Briedis J. Survival of critically ill patients is time-critical. Crit Care Resusc. 2004;6(4):261-267.
- Scheulen JJ, Li G, Kelen GD. Impact of ambulance diversion policies in urban, suburban and rural areas of central Maryland. Acad Emerg Med. 2001;8(1):36-40.
- Sikka R, Metha S, Kaucky C, Kulstad EB. ED crowding is associated with increased time to pneumonia treatment. Am J of Emerg Med. 2010; 28(7):809-812.
- Holroyd BR, Bullard MJ, Latoszek K. Impact of a triage physician on emergency department overcrowding and throughput: a randomized trial. Acad Emerg Med. 2007;14(8)702-708.
- Han JH, Zhou C, France DJ. The effect of emergency department expansion on emergency department overcrowding. Acad Emerg Med. 2007;14(4)338-343.
- Howell E, Bessman E, Kravet S, Kolodner K, Marshall R, Wright S. Active bed management by hospitalists and emergency department throughput. Ann Intern Med. 2008;149(11):804-811.
- Briones A, Markoff B, Kathuria N. A model of a hospitalist role in the care of admitted patients in the emergency department. J Hosp Med. 2010;5(6):360-364.
- Nicholl J, West J, Goodacre S, Turner J. The relationship between distance to hospital and patient mortality in emergencies: an observational study. Emerg Med J. 2007; 24(9):665-668.