Long-term impacts of the crisis
Some of the hospitalist group leaders Ms. Flores has spoken with in recent months point out that, while New York and some other early COVID-19 hot spots experienced a tremendous surge of patients and hospital crowding in March and April 2020, other hospitals didn’t see anywhere near the impact.
“For some, there was nothing going on with COVID where they were,” she said. Elective surgeries were widely canceled, but with no corresponding increase of COVID admissions; and with fewer patients showing up in EDs, some physicians found themselves idled.
What will be the longer-term impact of COVID-19? How will it change hospital medicine? “I definitely think things are going to change,” Ms. Flores said, speculating that licensing boards could find a way to make it easier for physicians to practice across state lines in response to crises like the pandemic. “Do we need to think at the national level about what we can do to create more surge capacity, to move people when and where they need to go in a crisis? Are there things SHM could do to help?”
Ms. Flores expects more hospital closures than followed the 2008-2009 economic recession, which likely will further drive the trend toward mergers and acquisitions – both of hospitalist groups and of hospitals.
“From the point of view of hospitals, financial pressures will only get worse, pressing us to reinvent how hospitalists work and how that could be made more efficient,” she said. “I hear hospitals saying: ‘We can’t sustain current trends.’ Meanwhile, specialists are saying they need more help from hospitalists, and frontline hospitalists are saying they’re already working too hard. What will we do about burnout?”
These competing trends were all headed toward a perfect storm even before the epidemic hit, Ms. Flores said. “The response will require some innovations we haven’t yet conceived of. Incremental change won’t get us where we need to be. But the hospitalist’s role will be more essential than ever.”
The 2020 data show that a lot of things have been fairly steady for hospitalists, said Thomas Frederickson, MD, a member of SHM’s PAC and a specialist in hospital medicine at CHI Health in Omaha, Neb. But one concern about this stability is that, while hospitalist compensation continues to go up, workload and by extension productivity remain relatively flat. “That has been a trend over the past decade, and some of us find it hard to make sense of that.”
Dr. Frederickson, too, sees a need for disruptive innovation. “I just wish I knew what that will be.” Perhaps, just as hospitalists played a large role in the quality revolution in hospitals over the past decade, maybe in the next decade they will come to play a large role in the right-sizing of hospital care in health systems, he said.
One other important finding: the number of hospitalists per group who play roles as physician leaders has also increased, with an average of 3.2 physicians per group in a formal leadership role (median of 2). But currently, 73% of the highest-ranking leaders in hospitalist groups are male, and they are disproportionally white. As reported in Medscape in 2019, 40% of working hospitalists are women and only 36% of hospitalists overall self-identified as White.1
“When you think of the demographics of actual working hospitalists, we could say the field of hospital medicine could and should do better in creating opportunities for diversity in leadership roles,” Ms. Flores said.
1. Martin KL. Hospitalist Compensation Report for 2019. Medscape. 2019 Jun 5..