What’s different in the VA?
The work of hospitalists in the VA is mostly similar to other hospital settings, but perhaps with more intensity, Dr. Anderson said. There are comorbidities such as higher rates of PTSD, alcohol use disorder, substance abuse, and mental health issues – all of which have an effect over time on patients. But veterans also have different attitudes about, for example, pain.
“When patients are asked to rate their pain on a scale of 0 to 10, for a veteran of a foreign war, 2 out of 10 is not the same as someone else’s 2 out of 10. How do we compensate for that difference?” he said. “And while awareness of PTSD and efforts to mitigate its impact have made incredible gains over the past 15 years, we still see a lot of these issues and their manifestations in social challenges such as homelessness. We are fortunate to have VA outpatient services and homeless veteran programs to help with these issues.”
There is a different paradigm for care at the VA, Dr. Anderson said. “We are a not-for-profit institution with the welfare of veterans as our primary aim. Beyond their health and wellness, that means supporting them in other ways and reaching out into the community. As doctors and nurses we feel a kinship around that mission, although we also have to be stewards of taxpayer dollars. We recognize that the VA is a large and complicated, somewhat inertia-laden organization in which making changes can be very challenging. But there are also opportunities as a national organization to effect changes on a national scale.”
Dr. Anderson chairs the VA’s Hospitalist Field Advisory Committee (HFAC), a group of about eight hospitalists empaneled to advise the system’s Office of Specialty Care Services on clinical policy and program development. They serve 3-year terms and meet monthly by phone and annually in Washington. The HFAC’s last annual meeting occurred in mid-September 2018 in Washington with a focus on developing a hospital medicine annual survey and needs assessment, revisiting strategic goals, and convening multilateral meetings with the chiefs of medicine and emergency medicine FACs.
“Our biggest emphasis is clinical – this includes clinical pathways, best practices for managing PTSD or acute coronary syndrome, and the like. We also share management issues, such as how to configure medical records or arrange night coverage. This is a national conversation to share what some sites have already experienced and learned,” Dr. Anderson said.
“We also have a VA Academic Hospitalist Subcommittee, working together on multisite research studies and on resident education protocols. Because we’re a large system, we’re able to connect with one another and leverage what we’ve learned. I get emails almost every day about research topics from colleagues across the country,” he said. A collaborative website and email distribution list allows doctors to post questions to their peers nationwide.
A calling for hospital medicine
Before moving to Denver, Dr. Anderson served as a major in the Air Force Medical Corps and was based at the David Grant US Air Force Medical Center on Travis Air Force Base in California – which is where he did his residency. In the course of a “traditionalist” internal medical training, including 4-month stints on hospital wards in addition to outpatient services, he realized he had a calling for hospital medicine.