At Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, hospitalists have demonstrated good results with a program to provide care at home rather than in the hospital.
David Levine, MD, MPH, MA, clinician and investigator at Brigham and Women’s and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, said that the structure of inpatient care has generally not changed much over decades, despite advances in technology.
“We round on them once a day – if they’re lucky, twice,” he said. “The medicines have changed and imaging has changed, but we really haven’t changed the structure of how we take care of acutely ill adults for almost a hundred years.”
Hospitalizing patients brings unintended consequences. Twenty percent of older adults will become delirious during their stay, 1 out of 3 will lose a level of functional status in the hospital that they’ll never regain, and 1 out of 10 hospitalized patients will experience an adverse event, like an infection or a medication error.
Brigham and Women’s program of at-home care involves “admitting” patients to their homes after being treated in the emergency department. The goal is to reduce costs by 20%, while maintaining quality and safety and improving patients’ quality of life and experience.
Researchers are studying their results. They randomized patients, after the ED determined they required admission, either to admission to the hospital or to their home. The decision on whether to admit was made before the study investigators became involved with the patients, Dr. Levine said.
The program is also intended to improve access to hospitals. Brigham and Women’s is often over 100% capacity in the general medical ward.
Patients in the study needed to live within a 5-mile radius of either Brigham and Women’s Hospital, or Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital, a nearby community hospital. A physician and a registered nurse form the core team; they assess patient needs and ratchet care either up or down, perhaps adding a home health aide or social worker.
The home care team takes advantage of technology: Portable equipment allows a basic metabolic panel to be performed on the spot – for example, a hemoglobin and hematocrit can be produced within 2 minutes. Also, portable ultrasounds and x-rays are used. Doctors keep a “tackle box” of urgent medications such as antibiotics and diuretics.
“We showed a direct cost reduction taking care of patients at home,” Dr. Levine said. There was also a reduction in utilization of care, and an increase in patient activity, with patients taking about 1,800 steps at home, compared with 180 in the hospital. There were no significant changes in safety, quality, or patient experience, he said.
Lauren Doctoroff, MD, FHM – a hospitalist at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center in Boston and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School – explained another hospitalist-staffed project meant to improve access to care: her center’s postdischarge clinic, which was started in 2009 but is no longer operating.
The clinic tackled the problem of what to do with patients when you discharge them, Dr. Doctoroff said, and its goal was to foster more cooperation between hospitalists and the faculty primary care practice, as well as to improve postdischarge access for patients from that practice.
A dedicated group of hospitalists staffed the clinics, handling medication reconciliation, symptom management, pending tests, and other services the patients were supposed to be getting after discharge, Dr. Doctoroff said.
“We greatly improved access so that when you came to see us you generally saw a hospitalist a week before you would have seen your primary care doctor,” she said. “And that was mostly because we created open access in a clinic that did not have open access. So if a doctor discharging a patient really thought that the patient needed to be seen after discharge, they would often see us.”
Hospitalists considering starting such a clinic have several key questions to consider, Dr. Doctoroff said.
“You need to focus on who the patient population is, the clinic structure, how you plan to staff the clinic, and what your outcomes are – mainly how you will measure performance,” she said.
Dr. Doctoroff said hospitalists are good for this role because “we’re very comfortable with patients who are complicated, and we are very adept at accessing information from the hospitalization. I think, as a hospitalist who spent 5 years seeing patients in a discharge clinic, it greatly enhances my understanding of patients and their challenges at discharge.”
The clinic was closed, she said, in part because it was largely an extension of primary care, and the patient volume wasn’t big enough to justify continuing it.
“Postdischarge clinics are, in a very narrow sense, a bit of a Band-Aid for a really dysfunctional primary care system,” Dr. Doctoroff said. “Ideally, if all you’re doing is providing a postdischarge physician visit, then you really want primary care to be able to do that in order to reengage with their patient. I think this is because postdischarge clinics are construed in a very narrow way to address the simple need to see a patient after discharge. And this may lead to the failure of these clinics, or make them easy to replace. Also, often what patients really need is more than just a physician visit, so a discharge clinic may need to be designed to provide an enhanced array of services.”
Dr. Fitterman said that these stories show that not all role expansion in hospital medicine is good role expansion. The experiences described by Dr. Manjarrez, Dr. Levine, and Dr. Doctoroff demonstrate the challenges hospitalists face as they attempt expansions into new roles, he said.
“We can’t be expected to fill all the cracks in primary care,” Dr. Fitterman said. “As a country we need to really prop up primary care. This all can’t come under the roof of hospital medicine. We need to be part of a patient-centered medical home – but we are not the patient-centered medical home.”
He said the experience with the preop clinic described by Dr. Manjarrez also shows the need for buy-in from hospital or health system administration.
“While most of us are employed by hospitals and want to help meet their needs, we have to be more cautious. We have to look, I think, with a more critical eye, for the value; it may not always be in the dollars coming back in,” he said. “It might be in cost avoidance, such as reducing readmissions, or reducing same-day cancellations in an OR. Unless the C-suite appreciates that value, such programs will be short-lived.”
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