Lori J. Heim, MD, FAAFP, a hospitalist in practice at Scotland Memorial Hospital in Laurinburg, N.C., for the past 10 years, recalls when she first decided to pursue hospital medicine as a career. As a family physician in private practice who admitted patients to the local hospital in Pinehurst, N.C., and even followed them into the ICU, she needed a more flexible schedule when she became president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).
“My local hospital told me they had a policy against hiring family physicians as hospitalists. They didn’t consider us qualified,” Dr. Heim said. “I was incredulous when I first heard that because I already had full admitting privileges at the hospital. It made no sense, since they allowed me to manage my patients in the ICU.”
Then an opportunity opened at Scotland Memorial, located an hour away. “That has been a fabulous experience for me,” she said. The transition was relatively easy, following more than 2 decades of office practice. Dr. Heim’s hospitalist group now includes eight full-time clinicians who have a mix of family medicine and internal medicine backgrounds.
“I’ve never felt anything other than collegial support here. We go to the ER to evaluate patients and decide whether to admit them, and we do a lot of medical procedures. I’m not practicing pediatrics currently, but I have no problem conducting a gynecological exam. I think my experience in family medicine and primary care has been an asset,” Dr. Heim said. “I’m not sure I would be a hospitalist today if I had not been elected president of AAFP, but it was fortuitous.”
Respect for HTFMs is growing
Hospitalists trained in family medicine (HTFM) are a small but important segment of this field and of the membership of the Society of Hospital Medicine. The board specialties of physicians who work in the hospital are not always broken out in existing databases, but HTFMs are believed to represent about 8% of SHM members, and somewhere around 10%-15% of the total hospitalist workforce. According to SHM’s 2018 State of Hospital Medicine Report, 65% of hospital medicine groups employed at least one family medicine–trained provider in their group.1
SHM’s Special Interest Group (SIG) for HTFMs reports to the society’s Board of Directors. The American Academy of Family Medicine, with 131,400 members, also has a Member Interest Group (MIG) for HTFMs. When AAFP recently surveyed its members to identify their primary patient care practice location, only 4% named the hospital (not including the emergency department), while 3% said the hospital emergency department.2
Among 32,450 adult primary care-trained hospitalists surveyed for the June 2016 AAMC In Brief of the American Association of Medical Colleges, 81.9% of the hospitalists identified internal medicine as their specialty, while 5.2% identified themselves as family physicians.3 A 2014 Medical Group Management Association survey, which reported data for 4,200 hospitalists working in community hospitals, found that 82% were internal medicine trained, versus 10% in family medicine and 7% in pediatrics.
Family medicine hospitalists may be more common in rural areas or in small hospitals – where a clinician is often expected to wear more hats, said hospitalist David Goldstein, MD, FHM, assistant director of the family medicine residency program at Natividad Medical Center, Salinas, Calif., and cochair of SHM’s family medicine SIG. “In a smaller hospital, if there’s not sufficient volume to support full-time pediatric and adult hospital medicine services, a family medicine hospitalist might do both – and even help staff the ICU.”
A decade or so ago, much of the professional literature about the role of HTFMs suggested that some had experienced a lack of respect or of equal job opportunities, while others faced pay differentials.3-5 Since then, the field of hospital medicine has come a long way toward recognizing their contributions, although there are still hurdles to overcome, mainly involving issues of credentialing, to allow HTFMs to play equal roles in the hospital, the ICU, or in residency training. The SHM 2018 State of Hospital Medicine Report reveals that HTFMs actually made slightly higher salaries on average than their internist colleagues, $301,833 versus $300,030.
Prior to the advent of hospital medicine, both family medicine and internal medicine physicians practiced in much the same way in their medical offices, and visited their patients in the hospital, said Claudia Geyer, MD, SFHM, system chief of hospital medicine at Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston. She is trained and boarded in both family and internal medicine. “When hospital medicine launched, its heavy academic emphasis on internists led to underrecognition of the continued contributions of family medicine. Family physicians never left the hospital setting and – in certain locales – were the predominant hospitalists. We just waited for the recognition to catch up with the reality,” Dr. Geyer said.
“I don’t feel family medicine for hospitalists is nearly the stepchild of internal medicine that it was when I first started,” Dr. Heim said. “In my multihospital hospitalist group, I haven’t seen anything to suggest that they treat family medicine hospitalists as second class.” The demand for hospitalists is greater than internists can fill, while clearly the public is not concerned about these distinctions, she said.
Whether clinicians are board certified in family medicine or internal medicine may be less important to their skills for practicing in the hospital than which residency program they completed, what emphasis it placed on working in the hospital or ICU, electives completed, and other past experience. “Some family medicine residencies offer more or less hospital experience,” Dr. Heim said.
Jasen Gundersen, MD, MBA, CPE, SFHM, president of acute and post-acute services for the national hospital services company TeamHealth, agreed that there has been dramatic improvement in the status of HTFMs. He is one, and still practices as a hospitalist at Boca Raton (Fla.) Regional Hospital when administrative responsibilities permit.
TeamHealth has long been open to family medicine doctors, Dr. Gundersen added, although some of the medical staff at hospitals that contract with TeamHealth have issues with it. “We will talk to them about it,” he said. “We hire hospitalists who can do the work, and we evaluate them based on their background and skill set, where they’ve practiced and for how long. We want people who are experienced and good at managing hospitalized patients. For new residency grads, we look at their electives and the focus of their training.”