SHM is entering an exciting new chapter in its history because we will soon see Dr. Eric Howell take the reins from Dr. Larry Wellikson as CEO, as we watch Dr. Danielle Scheurer assume the role of president from Dr. Chris Frost, and as a side note, I will try to fill Dr. Scheurer’s shoes as physician editor of The Hospitalist.
This changing of the guard of SHM’s leadership will take place amid the backdrop of an acrimonious presidential election and the emergence of a novel coronavirus that threatens to upend the typical routines of our social and professional lives.
Without a doubt, our leaders, whether national, regional, or local, will be at the helm during one of the most uncertain times in the history of modern health care. Will we see a U.S. President who is a proponent of supporting the Affordable Care Act? Will we see further erosion of Obamacare under a second term of President Trump? Will we see rural hospitals continue to close or shrink1 as their margins get squeezed by skyrocketing denials for inpatient status in favor of observation or outpatient status?2
Forces that seem beyond our control threaten to drastically alter our professions and even our livelihoods. In the space of the few weeks during which I began and finished this piece, every day brought a whole new world of changes in my hospital, town, state, and country. No leader can predict the future with any semblance of certitude.
In the face of these swirling winds of uncertainty, what is clear is that maintaining our commitment as hospitalists to providing evidence-based, high-quality care to our patients while providing support to our colleagues in the health care industry will greatly benefit from collaborating effectively under the “big tent” philosophy of SHM. Over my career, I have benefited from great role models and colleagues as my career took me from primary care med-peds to the “new” field of hospital medicine as a med-peds hospitalist, to a leadership role in pediatric hospital medicine. I have also benefited from “learning opportunities,” as I have made my fair share of mistakes in efforts to improve systems of care. Nearly all of these mistakes share a common thread – not collaborating effectively with critical stakeholders, both within and outside of my institution.3 As this pandemic progresses, I am (and likely you are) witnessing your leaders succeed or fail based on their ability to collaborate across the institution.
As a field, we risk making similar errors by being too narrowly focused as we strive to improve the care of our patients. Recently, Dr. Russell Buhr and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, demonstrated that a majority of 30-day readmissions for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are due to non-COPD diagnoses.4 As we discharge our COPD patients, we may be satisfied that we’ve “tuned up” our patient’s COPD, but have we adequately arranged for appropriate ongoing care of their other medical problems? This requires an activity undertaken less and less these days in medicine – a conversation between hospitalists and outpatient medical providers. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has made this more challenging, but I can assure you that you can neither transmit nor catch the coronavirus from a phone call.
Perhaps we can learn from our hospitalist colleagues trained in family medicine. A recent study found that hospitalists in a team made up of family medicine–trained physicians in an academic health center achieved a 33% shorter length of stay for patients from the family medicine clinic, after adjustment for disease, demographics, and disease severity.5 The conclusion of the authors was that this was likely caused by greater familiarity with outpatient resources. I would conjecture that family medicine hospitalists were also more likely to have a conversation with a patient’s outpatient primary care provider (PCP).
Of course, I am the first to admit that chatting with a PCP is not as easy as it used to be – when we could bump into each other in the doctor’s lounge drinking coffee or in radiology while pulling x-ray films (remember those?) – and in the age of COVID-19, these interactions are even less likely. It can take considerable time and effort to get PCP colleagues on the phone unless you’re chummy enough to have their cell phone numbers. And time is a resource in short supply because most hospital medicine groups are understaffed – in the 2018 SHM State of Hospital Medicine (SoHM) Report, 66.4% of responding groups had open positions, with a median of 12% understaffing reported. The 2020 SoHM report is being compiled as we speak, but I suspect this situation will not have improved, and as the pandemic strikes, staffing models have been completely blown up.
To dig ourselves out of this staffing hole and still stay under (or not too over) budget, bringing more advanced practice providers (APP) into our groups/divisions will be needed. We must recognize, however, that APPs can’t just be hired rapidly and thrown into the schedule. As Tracy Cardin, ACNP-BC, SFHM, stated in her December 2019 blog post on the Hospital Leader website, leaders need to implement consistent onboarding, training, and support of APPs, just as they would for any other hospitalist in their group.6 Physician hospitalists need to develop and maintain proven competency in effectively interacting with APPs practicing at the top of their skills and productivity. No time has ever proven the need to allow APPs to practice at the top of their skills than the age of COVID-19.7
But if your “field” doesn’t even recognize you at all? That is the fate of many providers left behind by the field of pediatric hospital medicine. Over the past year, we have seen PHM attain a great achievement in its recognition as a board-certified subspecialty established by the American Board of Pediatrics (ABP), only to have the process beset by allegations of gender and maternal bias. While a groundswell of opposition from pediatric hospitalists triggered by the exclusion of applicants to the Practice Pathway to board certification led the ABP to remove the practice interruption criteria, other potential sources of gender and maternal bias remain.8
This does not even address pediatric hospitalists trained in family medicine who cannot be eligible for PHM board certification through experience or fellowship, med-peds trained pediatric hospitalists who cannot quality because of insufficient time spent on pediatric inpatient care, newborn hospitalists (who do not qualify), and APPs specialized in pediatric inpatient care. While it is completely understandable that the ABP cannot provide a certification pathway for all of these groups, this still leaves a gap for these providers when it comes to being in a professional community that supports their professional development, ongoing education, and training. Fortunately, leaders of the three societies that have significant numbers of pediatric hospitalists – SHM, American Academy of Pediatrics, and Academic Pediatric Association – are working to develop a PHM designation outside of the ABP board certification pathway that will extend the professional community to those left out of board certification.
As we move bravely into this new era of SHM, our clarion call is to collaborate whenever and wherever we can, with our practice administrators, APPs, outpatient providers, subspecialist providers, and patient/family advocates – pandemic or no pandemic. In fact, what this pandemic has shown us is that rapid cycle, fully 360-degree collaboration is the only way hospitalists and hospital leaders will weather the storms of changing reimbursement, pandemics, or politics. This will be our challenge for the next decade, to ensure that SHM collaboratively moves beyond the confines of the hospital ward.
Dr. Chang is chief of pediatric hospital medicine at Baystate Children’s Hospital in Springfield, Mass., and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts, also in Springfield.
1. Frakt A. A Sense of Alarm as Rural Hospitals Keep Closing. The New York Times. 2018.. Accessed February 28, 2020.
2. Poonacha TK, Chamoun F. The burden of prior authorizations and denials in health care. Medpage Today’s KevinMD. 2019.. Accessed February 28, 2020.
3. 10 reasons healthcare leaders fail and how to prevent them. Becker’s Hospital Review. 2015.. Accessed March 15, 2020
4. Buhr RG et al. Comorbidity and thirty-day hospital readmission odds in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: a comparison of the Charlson and Elixhauser comorbidity indices..
5. Garrison GM et al. Family medicine patients have shorter length of stay when cared for on a family medicine inpatient service. J Prim Care Community Health. 2019..
6. Cardin T. Work the Program for NP/PAs, and the Program Will Work. The Hospital Leader: Official Blog of SHM. 2019.
7. Mittman DE. More physician assistants are ready to help with COVID-19 – now governors must empower them. The Hill. 2020.. Accessed March 31, 2020.
8. Gold JM et al. Collective action and effective dialogue to address gender bias in medicine..