The COVID-19 pandemic has given hospitalists a time to shine. Perhaps few people see – and value – this more than the hospital medicine administrators who work to support them behind the scenes.
“I’m very proud to have been given this opportunity to serve alongside these wonderful hospitalists,” said Elda Dede, FHM, hospital medicine division administrator at the University of Kentucky Healthcare in Lexington, Ky.
As with everything else in U.S. health care, the pandemic has affected hospital medicine administrators planning for 2021 and subsequent years in a big way. Despite all the challenges, some organizations are maintaining equilibrium, while others are even expanding. And intertwined through it all is a bright outlook and a distinct sense of team support.
Pandemic impacts on 2021 planning
Though the Texas Health Physicians Group (THPG) in Fort Worth is part of Texas Health Resources (THR), Ajay Kharbanda, MBA, SFHM, vice president of practice operations at THPG, said that each hospital within the THR system decides who that hospital will contract with for hospitalist services. Because the process is competitive and there’s no guarantee that THPG will get the contract each time, THPG has a large focus on the value they can bring to the hospitals they serve and the patients they care for.
“Having our physicians engaged with their hospital entity leaders was extremely important this year with planning around COVID because multiple hospitals had to create new COVID units,” said Mr. Kharbanda.
With the pressure of not enough volume early in the pandemic, other hospitalist groups were forced to cut back on staffing. “Within our health system, we made the cultural decision not to cancel any shifts or cut back on staffing because we didn’t want our hospitalists to be impacted negatively by things that were out of their control,” Mr. Kharbanda said.
This commitment to their hospitalists paid off when there was a surge of patients during the last quarter of 2020. “We were struggling to ensure there were adequate physicians available to take care of the patients in the hospital, but because we did the right thing by our physicians in the beginning, people did whatever it took to make sure there was enough staffing available for that increased patient volume,” Mr. Kharbanda said.
The first priority for University of Kentucky Healthcare is patient care, said Ms. Dede. Before the pandemic, the health system already had a two-layer jeopardy system in place to deal with scheduling needs in case a staff member couldn’t come in. “For the pandemic, we created six teams with an escalation and de-escalation pattern so that we could be ready to face whatever changes came in,” Ms. Dede said. Thankfully, the community wasn’t hit very hard by COVID-19, so the six new teams ended up being unnecessary, “but we were fully prepared, and everybody was ready to go.”
Making staffing plans amidst all the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic was a big challenge in planning for 2021, said Tiffani Panek, CLHM, SFHM, hospital medicine division administrator at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, in Baltimore. “We don’t know what next week is going to look like, let alone what two or three months from now is going to look like, so we’ve really had to learn to be flexible,” she said. No longer is there just a Plan A that can be adjusted as needed; now there has to be a Plan B, C, and D as well.
Because the hospital medicine division’s budget is tied to the hospital, Ms. Panek said there hasn’t been a negative impact. “The hospital supports the program and continues to support the program, regardless of COVID,” she said. The health system as a whole did have to reduce benefits and freeze raises temporarily to ensure employees could keep their jobs. However, she said they have been fortunate in that their staff has been able to – and will continue to – stay in place.
As with others, volume fluctuation was an enormous hurdle in 2021 planning, said Larissa Smith, adult hospitalist and palliative care manager at The Salem Health Medical Group, Salem Health Hospitals and Clinics, in Salem, Ore. “It’s really highlighted the continued need for us to be agile in how we structure and operationalize our staffing,” Ms. Smith said. “Adapting to volume fluctuations has been our main focus.”
To prepare for both high and low patient volumes in 2021 and be able to adjust accordingly, The Salem Health Medical Group finalized in December 2020 what they call “team efficiency plans.” These plans consist of four primary areas: surge capacity, low census planning, right providers and right patient collaboration, and right team size.
Ms. Smith is working on the “right providers and right patient collaboration” component with the trauma and acute care, vascular, and general surgery teams to figure out the best ways to utilize hospitalists and specialists. “It’s been really great collaboration,” she said.