Overwhelmed. As if we weren’t already overwhelmed. For decades, hospitalists have been on the forefront of improving acute care amidst a rapidly changing environment. These last few decades have seen tremendous advances in medicine, technology, safety culture, innovations in payment models, transformation in business models, and a rising tide of health care policy. There was never a year we didn’t face major change … and adapt to it. Then 2020 came upon us.
This year, we adapt to more than a score and 4 years’ worth of change.
The two pandemics that have come upon us are like tsunamis. And many of us are drowning. We know of threats of pandemics: influenza, Ebola, and the like. But SARS-CoV-2 is new and like no other. We live in fear and isolation, each and every day learning new information and debunking others. We also know of racial injustice and racism, implicit or explicit in our nation, whether we live it or just read of it. George Floyd’s death in my hometown marked another tsunami, a great realization in our nation, and a great unmasking of our denial.
Yet our country is not united.
Hospital medicine is not immune to this disunity. At a time that we are all treading water, staying afloat in our own hospitals and communities, confronting these issues beyond our immediate spheres of influence is overwhelming. We are impacted by these pandemics, personally and professionally. And admittedly, we can be both victim and perpetrator.
In the face of a novel infectious agent, medicine responded quickly and pushed us beyond our limits. We have developed new infection prevention guidelines. We worked creatively to solve PPE shortages. We fashioned new work flows and new care models. We accelerated telehealth applications. We expanded the boundaries on home-based programs and reached out to vulnerable elderly in congregate living – an isolation no older person should have to endure. We cared for our colleagues, neighbors, and family members who fell ill, some who recovered, and sadly, some who fell. We developed best-practice guidelines, research protocols, created new order sets, note templates, and documentation standards. We flexed into EDs, ICUs, and field hospitals. Amidst the turmoil, we took pay cuts and saw colleagues go on furlough. And still, we mentored leaders in our schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, and civic communities.
And just when we thought we could endure no more, on May 25, we witnessed a black man in Minneapolis killed by a policeman’s knee. The same knee that divided Americans when black American athletes knelt to protest the injustice their people have endured for centuries. A knee that has been confused for insolence, when it was meant for justice … yes, justice, for all. So, in early June, around the nation in support of black lives we also knelt, for almost 9 minutes.
This was the third time I cried during the pandemics.
For many of us, structural racism in America had finally been unmasked. The nation protested and rioted for weeks, and some communities have continued. Indeed, these two pandemics are still surging.
Side by side COVID-19 case conferences we lay transparent data demonstrating health disparities that we have tolerated for so long. We have vowed to resource equity work, and we opened dialogue, not only with patients and communities of color, but also with colleagues of color – some ready and some not yet ready to share and relive the traumas of their past and their present.
And still, we are not united.
While we physically mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we must make efforts to unmask the truths of SARS-CoV-2, the failings of our health system, the richness of our communities of color, and the injustice in the fabric of our society. More importantly, we must work together to create solutions. While we have diverse interests and priorities, at SHM, we can find common ground with kindred spirits, enhance the role of our specialty, and advance the health of our patients.
Let’s not be mistaken. These pandemics add to a growing list of interwoven issues in our society. In 2018, I wrote a piece on the role of hospitalists in addressing rural health disparities.1 According to the Sheps Center for Health Services Research, 129 rural hospitals have closed since 2010, closures that have accelerated with the COVID-19 pandemic.2 More than ever, we must stand above our inner and outer conflicts and be united to promote the health of our nation during these pandemics, because “all policy is health policy.”3
Most SHM presidents and president-elects come in with a platform, a priority for the specialty and for the society. This year, the platform has chosen us. For 20 years, I have witnessed SHM be a workshop for our members to address the pressing needs of our specialty and our patients. In 2020, we’ve continued to see SHM as a workshop for our members and a tour de force addressing these pandemics, from just in time publications of research and perspectives in the Journal of Hospital Medicine, to webinars and open access education in the Learning Portal, to advocacy on Capitol Hill. All of that work has been informed by you and for you. While there is still so much to do, we need not be overwhelmed when we do it together.
A score and 4 years ago, Robert Wachter, MD, and Lee Goldman, MD, dubbed us “hospitalists.” A year later, our shared workshop was born. Through one name change and now our first CEO transition from Larry Wellikson, MD, to Eric Howell, MD, SHM will continue to be where hospitalists both adapt and shape our nation through solutions that put an end to these pandemics. Let’s recommit to this work together.
Dr. Siy is division medical director, hospital specialties, in the departments of hospital medicine and community senior and palliative care, at HealthPartners in Bloomington, Minn. He is president-elect of SHM.
1. Hardeman RR et al. Stolen Breaths. N Engl J Med. 2020 Jul 16;383:197-9.
2. Siy JC. Reviving Rural Health Care. The Hospitalist. 2018 Sep 24.
3. The Cecil G. Sheps Center For Health Services Research. Rural Hospital Closures. 2014. https://www.shepscenter.unc.edu/programs-projects/rural-health/rural-hospital-closures/