Practice Economics

Rival Hospitalists Can Bring Havoc, or Healthy Competition to Hospitals


In November 2011, the board of directors of Lee Memorial Health System in Fort Myers, Fla., voted to close access at its four hospitals to any hospitalist who didn’t already practice there or wasn’t affiliated with private practices that contracted with the health system. According to a report in a local newspaper, the proliferation of competing hospitalist practices at Lee Memorial was contributing to high rates of patient and referring physician dissatisfaction and hospitalist turnover.1 As a result, the board limited new hospitalists from entering practice in their facilities until they could develop “rules of engagement” for the existing hospitalists through new contracts and standards of practice.

The Lee Memorial example of multiple, competing hospitalist groups—and individuals practicing hospital medicine, also known as “lone wolf” hospitalists—causing havoc is atypical of the fledgling medical specialty, which has seen rapid growth the past two decades. Even so, veteran hospitalists confirm that nowadays, with nearly 40,000 hospitalists practicing in a majority of U.S. hospitals, it’s not uncommon to have multiple groups or individuals working under the same hospital roof. What is concerning to some in the specialty is how the competition can turn ugly, especially considering SHM espouses such virtues as teamwork, leadership, and quality improvement (QI).

Even so, situations arise when multiple HM groups under one roof don’t get along. Sometimes those groups or individual practitioners compete, head to head, for new admissions. Some hospitals have patient populations carved out by capitated medical groups or staff/group model HMOs. Some specialty groups, cardiology or orthopedics, for example, choose to contract hospitalist groups for their patients, setting up potential conflicts with new admissions. Other hospitals have “lone wolf” hospitalists, basically a practice of one.

No matter the dynamic, hospital administrators are frustrated with their inability to control competitive situations, especially when competing groups or individuals do not act in conjunction with their strategic goals.

Depending on hospital bylaws and state regulations, it might be difficult to exclude hospitalists from practicing in the hospital or to cut off competition. Some hospitals even welcome competition—as a prime virtue in its own right, a way to advance quality, or to guard against staffing shortages. The challenge, hospitalists and administrators say, is to encourage multiple groups to work amicably alongside each other, cooperating on the hospital’s larger mission and working toward its quality targets—and to make sure clinicians focus less on competition and more on patients (see “The Magic Bullet: Communication,”).

It forces us to make sure the services we provide are meeting the customer’s expectations. We can and do learn from each other.

—Lowell Palmer, MD, FHM, hospitalist, Southwest Washington Medical Center, Vancouver

Purposeful, Team-Based Medicine

Scott Nygaard, MD, Lee Memorial’s chief medical officer for physician services, announced on Aug. 29, 2012, that the health system was contracting with a newly formed medical group called Inpatient Specialists of Southwest Florida (ISSF), a partnership between Cape Coral, Fla.-based Hospitalist Group of Southwest Florida (HGSF) and national management company Cogent HMG based in Brentwood, Tenn. HGSF and Cogent HMG already had established practices in two of Lee’s four hospitals.

Other existing hospitalist groups are permitted to continue practicing in these hospitals, although only a contracted group will be able to recruit or add new physicians, Dr. Nygaard says.

“The bylaws did not allow us to formally close access for staff already in practice,” he said. Physicians have the option of joining ISSF, and eventually, he says, the other groups dwindled in numbers through attrition. As Lee Memorial’s sole provider of hospitalist care, ISSF’s long-term goal is to put HM on a similar footing with other hospital-based specialties, such as emergency medicine and anesthesiology.

As of late 2012, six hospitalist groups and more than 80 hospitalists practice at Lee Memorial hospitals; 40 of those hospitalists belong to ISSF. “The other groups were all offered an opportunity to discuss a contractual relationship with the system, but they declined,” Dr. Nygaard says.

The remaining groups had worked amicably alongside each other but in an atmosphere Dr. Nygaard likens to a flea market, with each group practicing its own separate business and business model.

A standardized approach conducive to achieving the hospital’s quality and performance targets was lacking, however. As a result, Lee Memorial implemented an HM standard of care within the system. It helped somewhat, Dr. Nygaard says, but it didn’t fix all of the competition problems.

“We have learned that variation is the enemy of quality, especially in the highly complex environment of an acute-care hospital, trying to generate the kinds of measurable results we are now being asked to provide,” he explains. “We need to be more organized, structured, and purposeful in an era of team-based medicine. You need committed, aligned partnerships offering appropriate incentives.”

The ISSF contract contains such performance incentives.

“The joint venture formalizes an informal, long-standing, collaborative relationship” between the two participating HM groups, says Joseph Daley, MD, co-founder and director of quality services for Hospitalist Group of Southwest Florida. “We bring substantial, local expertise to the table, and have been quality partners with both Lee Memorial and Cogent HMG.”

And, as of April, Lee Memorial spokesperson Mary Briggs reported patient satisfaction scores for hospitalists are improving. “We believe the changes put in place were the right ones,” she emailed The Hospitalist.

We have learned that variation is the enemy of quality, especially in the highly complex environment of an acute-care hospital, trying to generate the kinds of measurable results we are now being asked to provide. We need to be more organized, structured, and purposeful in an era of team-based medicine.

—Scott Nygaard, MD, chief medical officer for physician services, Lee Memorial Health System, Fort Myers, Fla.

Supply and Demand

Every local hospital environment is different, with HM group arrangements shaped to a large degree by supply and demand for physicians, says Brian Hazen, MD, chief of hospital medicine at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Falls Church, Va., one of five hospitals in the Inova system. Inova Fairfax employs the hospitalists in Dr. Hazen’s group but is also home to other groups, including a neurohospitalist service and about a half dozen solo practitioners. Dr. Hazen’s group receives administrative support from the hospital and primarily is assigned patients through the ED. Some of the private hospitalists don’t want to take ED call, he says, instead preferring to get referrals of insured patients from primary-care-physician groups.

“Here in the D.C. area, we’re reasonably well staffed by hospitalists, but we’re not fighting over patients. In fact, if it weren’t for the private physicians, we’d have trouble meeting current staffing needs,” Dr. Hazen says. “I have also seen competition in other hospital settings, but I haven’t been in a situation where the doctors were fighting over patients.”

The “lone wolf” hospitalists at Inova Fairfax work very hard, Dr. Hazen adds. “A lot of them have private practices, see patients in the hospital, and also take call. If one of them has to leave town on short notice, we can help them out. On the flip side, if we’re busy in the emergency department, we’ll call on them,” he says.

The ED receives instruction on which hospitalist group admits which patient, but sometimes referral mistakes are made.

“If we accidently admit a patient who should have gone to one of the private people, who depend on these admissions for their income, I let them choose whether we should continue to see that patient or do a transfer,” Dr. Hazen says. “For the most part, we all try to be nice people.”

In the current health-care environment, hospital administrators might be reluctant to erect barriers to multiple hospitalist practices under one roof for fear of restraining trade, just as they don’t stand in the way of primary-care physicians who want to follow their own patients into the hospital. It might be easier to enact equally enforced requirements for the credentialing and privileging of all hospitalists who want to practice at the hospital, spelling out expectations in such areas as following protocols. (In 2011, SHM issued a position paper on hospitalist credentialing that addressed the appropriate time to institute a credentialing category with privileging criteria for hospitalists, and how to preserve maximum flexibility within this process.)2

Hospitals can limit who they contract with, who gets administrative support—and how much—using financial and quality performance to shape contracting decisions. In many communities, that could serve as an excluder of multiple groups in the same building, but in other locales, the payor mix might be attractive enough for physicians to survive on billing alone, says Leslie Flores, MPH, of Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. If the hospital isn’t providing financial support, it will have less influence over how that group does things.

Dr. Hazen says his employed hospitalist group at Inova Fairfax is represented on more than 20 hospital committees and quality initiatives in the hospital, and has demonstrated its alignment with the hospital’s goals. Recently, in response to the administration’s concerns about throughput, his group initiated geographic, multidisciplinary rounding.

“I can do this because I have elite physicians, and because I protect them from unreasonable expectations,” he says. “Everyone needs to understand that the hospital needs to survive, so the hospital has a right to expect certain things from its hospitalists, such as performance on length of stay, throughput, other core measures, and promptly answering pages. Everyone should understand that those are the rules. Being fair, honest, and transparent about expectations is not an unreasonable expectation.”

Competition among hospitalists should be on a professional basis, experts emphasize, and cooperation is in everyone’s best interests. But Lowell Palmer, MD, FHM, a hospitalist at Southwest Washington Medical Center in Vancouver, Wash., thinks competition can be a healthy thing for hospitalist groups.

“It forces us to make sure the services we provide are meeting the customer’s expectations,” says Dr. Palmer, who works with Cogent Physician Services, one of the three HM groups at Southwest Washington. “We can and do learn from each other.”

Impact of Health-Care Reform

Beware the transformation health-care reform is having on the dynamics of hospital-based practice and the competitive landscape facing more hospitalist groups, says Roger Heroux, MHA, PhD, CHE, consultant with Hospitalist Management Resources LLC. Reforms mean hospitalists are seeing an increased emphasis on coordinating with post-acute-care providers, improving care transitions, preventing readmissions, and meeting hospital targets for quality and patient safety.

Primary-care groups, accountable-care organizations (ACOs), and health plans could choose specific hospitalist practices they want to partner with to manage the care of their hospitalized members, but they will have clear performance expectations that those groups will need to meet, spelled out in benchmarks. Or, as some experts believe, they might opt to bring in their own hospitalist group.

“We’re spending our time working with existing hospitalist programs to help them be more efficient and effective, to manage risk, and to become aggressive about meeting the clinical benchmarks,” Heroux says. Hospitals, ACOs, and capitated groups can’t afford not to have a high-performing hospitalist program, so this will become a hallmark of survival for hospitalist programs as well. “In a highly managed environment, patients will be managed by a hospitalist group that is responsive to these expectations,” he says.

Larry Beresford is a freelance writer in Oakland, Calif.


  1. Gluck F. Lee Memorial Health Systems’ hospitalists under new controls. Fort Myers News Press. Dec. 1, 2011.
  2. Society of Hospital Medicine Position Statement on Hospitalist Credentialing and Medical Staff Privileges. SHM website. Available at: Accessed April 1, 2013.

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