The steam engine. The telephone. Television. ATMs. The Internet. Smartphones. The 24/7 hospitalist program.
Perhaps the single most important innovation along the road to where we are now in HM has been the development of the hospital-sponsored, 24/7, on-site hospitalist program. And the father of this invention may be the most significant figure in HM you’ve never heard of: John Holbrook, MD, FACEP. An emergency-medicine physician since the mid-1970s, Dr. Holbrook did something in July 1993 that was considered off the wall, yet proved to be revolutionary: From nothing, he launched a 24/7 hospitalist program staffed with board-eligible and board-certified internists at Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Mass. The inpatient physicians (this was before the word “hospitalist” came to be) were employed by a subsidiary of the hospital and worked in place of community primary-care physicians (PCPs), taking care of hospitalized patients who did not have a PCP, or whose PCP chose not to come to the hospital.
Of great significance, from the beginning, and perhaps by unintentional design, these physicians were agents of change and improvement for the hospital itself.
To be sure, in places like Southern California, 24/7, on-site hospitalist programs were in place in the late 1980s. Some claim those programs may have been the birthplace of the hospitalist model. However, such programs came to be in order to help medical groups manage full capitated risk delegated to them from HMOs on a population of patients, and were not supported by the hospital, per se. This is distinct from hospitalist programs—such as Mercy’s—sponsored by hospitals (whether employed or contracted) in predominantly fee-for-service markets, which then comprised the lion’s share of the U.S. market.
I had the extraordinary good fortune to happen along in July 1994, get hired by Dr. Holbrook, and soon after begin serving as medical director for the Mercy program, which I would do for the next decade. To this day, Dr. Holbrook is a mentor and trusted advisor to me. I caught up with him in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the Mercy Inpatient Medicine Service.
Question: What gave you the idea to launch what was, at the time, considered such an unconventional program?
Answer: Before the specialty of emergency medicine, a patient’s private physician would be called in most cases when a patient present in the ED: 25 or 50 doctors might be called over 24 hours, each to see one patient each. The inefficiency and disruption caused by this system was a natural and logical stimulus to develop the specialty of emergency medicine. I saw hospitalist medicine as an exact analogy.
Q: What were you observing in the healthcare environment that drove you to create the Mercy Inpatient Medicine Service?
A: Working for many years in the emergency department of a community hospital without a house staff, the ED docs would admit a patient at night or on the weekend and the attending physician would often plan to see the patient “in the morning.” When the patient would decompensate in the middle of the night, the ED doc would get a call to run to the floor to “Band-Aid” the situation.
Q: How did you convince the board of trustees to fund it?
A: The reasons were primarily economic. No. 1, the hospital was losing market share because local physicians would prefer to admit to the teaching hospital [a nearby competitor], where they were not required to come in during the middle of the night. No. 2, the cost of a hospitalization managed by a hospitalist was less expensive than either a hospital stay managed by house staff or managed over the telephone by a private attending at home.