Practice Economics

Communication Key to Peaceful Coexistence for Competing Hospital Medicine Groups


The Magic Bullet: Communication

Experienced hospitalists and medical directors agree that the key to multiple hospitalist groups coexisting effectively under one roof—whether directly competing or not—is good communication. Effective communication can take time to build.

“Start by working together on something—anything, [such as] a hospital committee of some sort where there’s not likely to be much tension,” says hospitalist pioneer and practice consultant John Nelson, MD, MHM.

Multiple groups in one hospital can identify areas of common interest and agree to work together (i.e. competition-free zones).

Dr. Nelson practices at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, Wash., which has a hospitalist group employed by the hospital and another employed by Group Health Cooperative, a nonprofit health system in Washington state. It is important to put some trust in the trust bank, he says, “and that’s hard if you have no social connections at all. At my hospital, we enjoy each other’s company, we visit each other at lunch, and we even tried to have a journal club.” The two hospitalist groups work together on developing care protocols. Dr. Nelson says it also makes sense for the groups’ leaders to sit down together on a regular basis and have a venue for discussing important issues and solving problems that may arise.

Other suggestions for hospitalist groups working together under one roof include:

  • Clearly define each group’s territory. The groups’ representatives can go out and try to persuade health plans or physician groups to shift their hospitalist allegiances, but there should be no “trolling” or “poaching” of patients going on inside the hospital’s walls. That will only confuse patients and disrupt the hospital’s larger service goals.
  • Inform the ED and other key staff of your schedules. It’s important that everyone know exactly who is supposed to get which patients, and how these referrals get made. But recognize that mistakes happen and, hopefully, these will even out between the groups over time.
  • Transparency, honesty, and even-handed treatment of all hospitalists can prevent resentment. Clearly defined guidelines and expectations are helpful. If the policy spells out transfers for an incorrectly referred patient, both sides should be accessible and cooperative with that process.
  • Identify areas of common interest and agree to work together on these areas (i.e. competition-free zones). It might be possible, for example, for competing groups to take each others’ after-hours call on a rotating basis, with a firm commitment not to steal patients along the way.
  • Spell out responsibilities in a way that everyone can agree is fair, such as alternating referrals or taking call on alternating days. For example, if subsidies are paid to more than one hospitalist group, is this done equitably, such as based on the number of hospitalist FTEs or shifts?
  • Restrictive covenants and contractual noncompete clauses could become an issue in areas where multiple groups practice. Rather than using overly broad, blanket language, it could be clarified that such pacts apply only to the hospital where the physician currently works, and within a reasonable time frame. But everyone involved should be aware of what these covenants contain and, if they appear unreasonable, don’t sign them.

—Larry Beresford

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