The first few months of 2020 have shone a light on the challenges we face in this new decade as a health care industry and society. As the new decade dawned, we glimpsed at just the tip of the iceberg of social injustice and longstanding inequality in our society as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped our world. The evident health disparities revealed what we have always known: that our health care system is a microcosm of our society, and that this crisis laid bare the systematic bias present in our everyday lives.
The events of early 2020 have allowed hospitalists to take our rightful place among the few who can and will be the problem solvers of the most complex puzzles. Any discussion of the year 2020 would be incomplete without talking about COVID-19, the first modern pandemic. The rapid global spread, severity, and transmissibility of the novel coronavirus presented unique clinical and operational challenges.
Hospitalists in my communities not only stepped up to care for our most acutely ill, but also our critically ill COVID-19 patients. We were in lockstep with our emergency medicine and critical care medicine colleagues to ensure that patients – COVID-19 positive or negative – received the right care at the right time in the right place. We partnered with our disaster and emergency preparedness colleagues, some of us members or leaders within our hospital, system, regional, state, or national emergency operations centers.
As further evidence of health disparities emerged in the outcomes of care of patients with COVID-19 and the homicide of George Floyd raised the alarm (again) that racism is alive and well in this country, hospitalists grieved, kneeled, and then stood with our colleagues, patients, and fellow humans to advocate for change. At the front lines, we ensured that crisis standards of care action plans would not disadvantage any person for whom we may care during acute illness. Behind closed doors and in open forums, we spoke in defense of the most vulnerable and wrote about how each and every person can throw a wrench into the existing system of bias and discrimination to produce lasting, real change for the better.
I am proud to be a hospitalist, a member of this club, with game changers like Kimberly Manning, Samir Shah, Tracy Cardin, Jason Persoff, Charlie Wray, Chris Moriates, and Vineet Arora – to name just a few. Even more so, I am grateful to be a new member of the Society of Hospital Medicine’s board of directors, where I find myself in the company of admired colleagues as we chart the course of SHM into the new decade. With such a jarring launch, we face a daunting task. In the short term, the board must guide SHM in weathering the economic storm kicked off by COVID-19 and the new social distanced norms we all practice. In the long run, we have to stay the ambitious and steep course of excellence and accomplishment set by our founders.
If we as a community of hospitalists intend to lead our field – and health care in general – each one of us must individually commit to the following pursuits:
1. Maintaining excellence in our clinical practice. First and foremost, our impact on patients happens at the bedside. Honing our clinical skills, staying up to date on the latest, breaking changes in best practices in caring for hospitalized patients and establishing the kind of relationship with their patients that we would wish for ourselves must be a core function. With the staggering volume of knowledge and the rapidity with which new information is constantly added to that existing body, this may seem like an impossibly daunting task. Thankfully, SHM recognizes this vital need and provides resources to allow each one of us to succeed in this endeavor. The Journal of Hospital Medicine brings us the best and most relevant evidence for our practice, ensuring that studies are rigorously performed and reviewed and that the outcomes produced are the ones that we are after. We can maintain board certification with a focused practice in hospital medicine by utilizing the multimodal study tools available through Spark. And, when we are once again able to gather together as a community, the annual conference will provide the best education about hospital medicine available. In the meantime, feel free to explore HM20 Virtual, featuring select offerings from the original HM20 course schedule and the opportunity to earn CME.
2. Guide our future hospitalist colleagues to be 21st-century practitioners. Medical students and residents are entering our profession in a very dynamic time. The competencies they must have in order to succeed as hospitalists in 2020 and onward are different than they were when I went through training. COVID-19 has shown us that hospitalists must be “digital doctors” – they must be facile in utilizing virtual health tools, be capable of harnessing the power of health information technology in the electronic medical record to provide care, and also be able to incorporate and interpret the incredible amount of information in health care “big data.” It is our responsibility today to prepare and coach our trainees so that they may be successful tomorrow.
3. Change the system to ensure that each patient gets the safest, most equitable care we can provide. Each one of us can be at the top of our game, but if we practice in a health care system that has gaps, we may still fail in providing the safest, highest-quality care possible. It is each of our responsibility to use every patient interaction to discover the systemic forces, including the social and cultural biases, that can lead to patient harm. In that, it is our duty to protect the most vulnerable, to redesign systems such that every person can be healthy. Only through this work of improvement do we have hope to eliminate the health disparities that exist.
4. Advocate for our patients. We each have seen the incredible impact that the Affordable Care Act has had on health care delivery in the day-to-day interactions we have with our patients. Yet it is not enough. We still have room to improve the American health care system to allow better access to care, more timely provision of care, and better outcomes for our communities. Sometimes, this takes a change in policy. For each of us, it starts with being aware of how our state policy can impact how care is delivered to our patients. In addition to your own personal advocacy work, you can join forces with SHM’s Advocacy & Public Policy team to use our society to amplify your voice.
The year 2020 began with eye-opening crises that exposed the depth and breadth of the work we have before us in hospital medicine. We have an important role to play in the next decade – surely to be the most interesting time to be a hospitalist.
Dr. Tad-y is a hospitalist and director of GME quality and safety programs at the University of Colorado at Denver, Aurora. She is a member of the SHM board of directors.