Serving as the lead physician for a hospital medicine group (HMG) makes for challenging work. And the challenges and complexity only increase for anyone who serves as the physician leader for multiple practice sites in the same hospital system. In my November 2013 column on multi-site HMG leaders, I listed a few of the tricky issues they face and will mention a few more here.
Unfortunately, tension between hospitalists at the big hospital and doctors at the small, “feeder” hospitals seems pretty common, and I think it’s due largely to high stress and a wide variation in workload, neither of which are in our direct control. At facilities where there is significant tension, I’m impressed by how vigorously the hospitalists at both the small and large hospitals argue that their own site faces the most stress and challenges. (This is a little like the endless debate about who works harder, those who work with residents and those who don’t.)
The hospitalists at the small site point out that they work with little or no subspecialty help and might even have to take night call from home while working during the day. Those at the big hospital say they are the ones with the very large scope of clinical practice and that, rather than making their life easier, the presence of lots of subspecialists makes for additional work coordinating care and communicating with all parties.
Where it exists, this tension is most evident during a transfer from one of the small hospitals to the large one. After all, one of the reasons to form a system of hospitals is so that nearly all patient needs can be met at one of the facilities in the system. Yet, for many reasons, the hospitalists at the large hospital are—sometimes—not as receptive to transfers as might be ideal. They might be short staffed or facing a high census or an unusually high number of admissions from their own ED. Or, perhaps, they’re concerned that the subspecialty services for which the patient is being transferred (e.g. to be scoped by a GI doctor) won’t be as helpful or prompt as needed. Or maybe they’ve felt “burned” by their colleagues at the small hospital for past transfers that didn’t seem necessary.
The result can be that the doctors at the smaller hospital complain that the “mother ship” hospitalists often are unfriendly and unreceptive to transfer requests. Although there may not be a definitive “cure” for this issue, there are several ways to help address the problem.
- In my last column, I mentioned the value of one or more in-person meetings between those who tend to be on the sending and receiving end of transfers, to establish some criteria regarding transfers that are appropriate and review the process of requesting a transfer and making the associated arrangements. In most cases there will be value in the parties meeting routinely—perhaps two to four times annually—to review how the system is working and address any difficulties.
- Periodic social meetings among the hospitalists at each site will help to form relationships that can make it less likely that any conversation about transfers will go in an unhelpful direction. Things can be very different when the people on each end of the phone call know each other personally.
- Record the phone calls between those seeking and accepting/declining each transfer. Scott Rissmiller, MD, the lead hospitalist for the 17 practice sites in Carolinas Healthcare, has said that having underperforming doctors listen to recordings of their phone calls about transfers has, in most cases he’s been involved with, proven to be a very effective way to encourage improvement.
The small hospitals in many systems sometimes struggle to find a way to provide economical night coverage. Hospitals below a certain size find it very difficult to justify a separate, in-house night provider. Some hospital systems have had success sharing night staffing, with the large hospital’s night hospitalist, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant providing telephone coverage for “cross cover” issues that arise after hours.
For example, when a nurse at the small hospital needs to contact a night hospitalist, staff will page the provider at the big hospital, and, in many cases, the issue can be managed effectively by phone. This works best when both hospitals are on the same electronic medical record, so that the responding provider can look through the record as needed.
The hospitalist at the small hospital typically stays on back-up call and is contacted if bedside attention is required.
Or, if the large and small hospitals are a short drive apart, the night hospitalist at the large facility might make the short drive to the small hospital when needed. In the case of emergencies (i.e., a code blue), the in-house night ED physician is relied on as the first responder.
Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988. He is co-founder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is co-director for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.