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.
Q: What was the most difficult operational challenge for the program?
A: Effective and timely communication with the community physicians was the most difficult operational challenge. Access to outpatient medical treatment immediately prior to a hospitalization and timely communication to the community physician were both challenges that we never adequately solved in the early days. I understand that these issues can still be problematic.
Q: How was it received by patients?
A: Overall, patients were very happy with the system. In the old system, with a typical four-physician practice, a patient had only a 1 in 4 chance of being admitted by the doctor who was familiar with the case. The fact that the hospitalist was available in the hospital made the improvement in quality apparent to most patients.
Q: How did you get the medical staff to buy into the program?
A: I personally visited every private physician who participated. Physicians were given the option of not participating, or of part-time participation—for example, on weekends or holidays only. The word spread. Physicians came up to me and told me that the program enabled them to continue practicing for another five years. Physicians’ spouses thanked me.
Q: Are you surprised HM as a field has grown so quickly?
A: I am not really that surprised. It is a better way to organize health care. I am surprised that it did not occur sooner. We talked about instituting this system for 10 years before 1993.
Q: What big challenges remain for hospital medicine? What are some solutions?
A: I believe that the biggest global challenge for hospital medicine remains communication with community-based providers, both before the hospitalization as well as during hospitalization and immediately after discharge. In the era of the EMR, the Internet, and the iPhone and Android, this should be easier. HIPAA has not helped.
The other growing challenge will become apparent as hospitalists age in the profession: Disruption of the diurnal sleep cycle becomes increasingly problematic for many physicians after the age of 50 and can easily lead to burnout. The early hospitalists were all in their 30s. The attractive lifestyle choice for the 30-year-old can lead to burnout for the 55-year-old. The emergency-medicine literature has noted a similar problem of shift work/sleep fragmentation.
I believe Dr. Holbrook’s assessments on the future of our specialty are on target. As HM continues to mature, we need to continue to focus on how we communicate with providers outside the four walls of the hospital and how to address barriers to making HM a sustainable career.
Dr. Whitcomb is medical director of healthcare quality at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass. He is a co-founder and past president of SHM. Email him at email@example.com.
(Editor's note: Updated July 12, 2013.)