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It has been a couple of years since Jason Stein, MD, SFHM, a hospitalist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, first reported on his experience with accountable care units (ACUs) and structured interdisciplinary bedside rounds (SIBR). With ACUs, Jason and his team undertook an “extreme makeover” of care on the hospital ward. Because most hospitalist groups are endeavoring to address team-based care, I took the opportunity to catch up with and learn from Jason, who has created an exciting and compelling approach to multidisciplinary, collaborative care in the hospital.

In 2012, Jason’s team won SHM’s Excellence in Teamwork in Quality Improvement Award, and Jason was selected as an innovation advisor to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation. Since then, ACUs and SIBR have been implemented at a number of sites in the U.S. and abroad, and the work has been referenced by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and the Harvard Business Review. Jason has created Centripital, a nonprofit that trains members of the hospital team to collaborate optimally around the patient and family, the central focus of care.

Here are some excerpts from my interview with Jason:

Question: What is an accountable care unit (ACU)?

Answer: We defined an ACU as a geographic inpatient care area consistently responsible for the clinical, service, and cost outcomes it produces. There are four essential design features of ACUs: 1) unit-based physician teams; 2) structured interdisciplinary bedside rounds, or SIBR; 3) unit-level performance reports; and 4) unit co-management by nurse and physician directors.

Q: What were you observing in the care of the hospitalized patient that led you to create ACUs?

A: We saw fragmentation. We saw weak cohesiveness and poor communication among doctors, nurses, and allied health professionals. HM physicians who travel all over the hospital seeing patients are living with an illusion of teamwork. In reality, to be a high-functioning team, physicians have to share time, space, and a standard way to work together with nurses, patients, and families. When we embraced this way of thinking, we realized we could be so much better than we were. The key was to re-engineer a way to really work together.

Q: What makes an ACU successful?

A: In a word, control. An ACU creates new control levers for all of the key players to have greater influence on other members of the team—nurses with doctors, doctors with nurses, patients with everyone, and vice versa. It’s actually quite simple how this happens. The ACU clinical team spends the day together, caring for the same group of patients. Everyone communicates face to face, rather than by page, text, or phone. Stronger relationships are built, and clinicians are more respectful of one another. A different level of responsiveness and accountability is created. The feeling that every person is accountable to the patient and to the other team members allows the team to gain greater control over what happens on the unit. That’s a very powerful dynamic.

SIBR further reinforces the mutual accountability on an ACU. During SIBR, each person has a chance to hear and be heard, to share their perspective, and to contribute to the care plan. Day after day, SIBR creates a positive, collaborative culture of patient care. Once clinicians realize how much control and how much self-actualization they gain on an ACU, it seems impossible to go back to the old way.

“In reality, to be a high-functioning team, physicians have to share time, space, and a standard way to work together with nurses, patients, and families. When we embraced this way of thinking, we realized we could be so much better than we were. The key was to re-engineer a way to really work together.”

—Jason Stein, MD, SFHM

Q: What is the biggest challenge in implementing and sustaining an ACU?

A: The first challenge, of course, is that this is change. And up front—before they realize they will actually gain greater control from the ACU-SIBR model—nurses and, particularly, doctors can perceive this change as a loss of control. “You’re telling me I have to SIBR every morning? At what time? And I have to do all my primary data gathering, including a patient interview and physical exam, before SIBR? Let me stop you right there. I’m way too busy for that.”

Naturally, not everyone immediately sees that they can gain rather than lose efficiency.

Another challenge is the logistics of implementing and then maintaining unit-based physician teams. There are multiple forces that can make geographic units a challenge to create and sustain, but all the logistics are manageable.

Q: How have you helped hospitals transition from a physician-centric model to the geographic-based model?

A: The most important factor in transitioning to an ACU model is for physicians to come to terms with the reality that geography must be the primary driver of physician assignments to patients. Nurses figured this out a long time ago. Do any of us know, bedside nurses who care for patients on multiple different units? As physicians, we’re due for the same realization.

But this means sacrificing long-practiced physician-centric methods of assigning ourselves to patients: call schedules, load balancing across practice partners—even the cherished concept of continuity is a force that can be at odds with geography as the driver. The way to approach the transition to unit-based teams is to have an honest dialogue. Why do we come to work in the hospital every day? If it’s to serve physician needs first, the old model deserves our loyalty. But if the needs of our patients and families are our focus, then we should embrace models that enable us to work effectively together, to become a great team.

Q: How have ACUs performed so far?

A: In the highest-acuity ACUs, we’ve seen mortality reductions of nearly 50%. In addition, there is a wide range of anecdotal outcomes reported. Most ACUs appear to be seeing reductions in length of stay and improvements in patient satisfaction and employee engagement. One ACU reports significant reductions in average cost per patient per day. Another ACU in a geriatric unit has seen dramatic reductions in falls. Some ACUs have seen improvements in glycemic control and VTE prophylaxis, and reductions in catheter utilization.

The benefits of the model seem to be many and probably depend on the patient population, severity of illness, baseline level of performance, and the focus and ability of the unit leadership team to get the most out of the model.

Q: Will ACUs or ACU features become de rigueur in a transformed healthcare landscape?

A: It’s hard to imagine a reality where features of ACUs do not become the standard of care. Once patients and professionals experience the impact of the ACU model, there’ll be no going back. It feels like exactly what we should be doing together. Several ACU design features are reinforced pretty cogently by Richard Bohmer in a New England Journal of Medicine perspective called “The Four Habits of High-Value Health Care Organizations.”1

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: I did not imagine my career as a QI practitioner at Emory becoming so immersed in social and industrial engineering. Of course, it’s obvious to me now that it’s happened, but six years ago when I first started directing SHM’s quality course, I thought the future in HM was health IT and real-time dashboards. Now I know those things will be important, but only if we first figure out how to get our frontline interdisciplinary clinicians to work as an effective team.


Dr. Whitcomb is Chief Medical Officer of Remedy Partners. He is co-founder and past president of SHM. Email him at wfwhit@comcast.net.

Reference

  1. Bohmer RM. The four habits of high-value health care organizations. New Engl J Med. 2011;365(22):2045-2047.

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