Medicolegal Issues

Case Managers Offer Options


Jonathan P. Weisul, MD, FACEP, has direct responsibility over both case management and contracted hospitalist services at CHRISTUS St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Alexandria, La., where he is regional chief medical officer and vice president of medical affairs. To him, the two most important aspects of the relationship between hospitalists and case managers involve communication and respect.

“In our system it’s a very collaborative approach where the case manager presents options to the physician as discharge planning progresses and the physician explains the progression of the patient’s treatment to the case manager,” he says.

In the early days of managed care, Dr. Weisul says, case management received some bad press in that “it was perceived that their interest was [just] getting patients out of the hospital. And I would say that one area where the communication fails is the oftentimes misheld belief on the physician’s part that case managers are trying to practice medicine,” he explains. “Communication usually involves the case manager presenting options to a physician in a way that would be in the best interest of the patient—not trying to usurp any authority from the physician-patient relationship.”

The greatest partnership between hospitalists and case managers occurs when they both share options and needs, and perhaps the best venue for sharing occurs at interdisciplinary meetings. All case managers interviewed for this article stress the importance of daily meetings as a clear advantage for an effective discharge plan.

L. Greg Cunningham, MHA, CEO of the American Case Management Association (ACMA), headquartered in Little Rock, Ark., says the best thing hospitalists and case managers can do to improve their working relationship is “communicate about their patient caseload first thing in the morning.” Both are sharing information. “One is sharing more expectations of what needs to be done for the patient,” he says. “The other is sharing more expectations about what the physician needs to do in terms of decision-making such as getting signatures on forms and communicating with the patient and family.”

The greatest partnership between hospitalists and case managers occurs when they both share options and needs, and perhaps the best venue for sharing occurs at interdisciplinary meetings.

Be Proactive

Theresa Brocato, RN, BSN, CPUR, manager of case management and social work at CHRISTUS St. Frances Cabrini Hospital, has been in that position for almost four years. For seven years before that she worked in managed care for Ochsner Health Plan of Louisiana. In her opinion hospitalists can be most helpful to case managers by thinking proactively.

“We have a very proactive discharge planning department,” she says of her department of nine case managers (all nurses) and five social workers who work directly with patients and families, “because as soon as the patient gets to the hospital we start the discharge planning.”

The case managers interview patients and their family and let them know what their estimated time to wellness will be. “We base the estimate on a working DRG [drug-related group],” she says. “We talk to the hospitalist up front, and [we] say, for instance, ‘For this patient, the average time to wellness is about six days, and we need to start preparing for that ultimate discharge. Is there anything you foresee that you might need on discharge, such as equipment or home health?’ And then we start coordinating with the physicians to get the orders in place and get everything set up so that they have a smooth transition at the time of discharge.”

But Dr. Weisul says this kind of communication can be misinterpreted. “Communication seems to fail in the most difficult cases where the physician seems to perceive that the progress of the medical care might not be going on [in] as timely [a manner] as he or she might expect and feels that the case manager, in … looking at when the appropriate discharge time might be, is pressuring the physician,” he says. “But the reverse is true: What they’re doing is just asking for input from the hospitalist [or other] physician as to progress on the path of returning the patient to health and just looking to the future.”

Brocato says the three hospitalists at Cabrini have been easy to work with, sometimes seeking out the case managers and social workers to ask for their help on difficult cases, working with their fellow interdisciplinary-team members to design discharge plans from innovative ideas that solve patient’s challenges, and including the patient in their planning.

Appropriate Levels of Care

At Cabrini Hospital, the case managers and social workers hold daily interdisciplinary discharge planning meetings. Each case is reviewed according to nationally accepted criteria to ensure that the care provided meets standards appropriate for the acute inpatient level of care. Other treatment levels identified during discharge planning include rehabilitation, long-term acute care, and outpatient levels of care.

One recommendation that Brocato would make to hospitalists to better help the work of the case managers, the hospital, and the patients is to recognize earlier which patients will require a longer length of stay (more than three weeks) so that those individuals can be transitioned into a more appropriate level of care.

Some examples of diagnoses in which long-term acute care might be called for, she says, include “osteomyelitis, where a patient will be on a course of antibiotics for six weeks and may require extensive wound therapy. In that case, as soon as we get the results of the bone scan and we see that, we immediately ask the physician to think about moving the patient.”

Other examples include those patients who will need a long time to recover, such as those in the ICU. “Maybe they’ve have been on a ventilator for a long time and they get debilitated,” says Brocato. “Or if they need to be weaned from the ventilator and need some intensive respiratory toilet. The long-term acute care setting is the more appropriate setting to work on trying to rehabilitate the patient.”


Another important element to a good discharge plan is follow-up. Cabrini Hospital has initiated a program whereby a nurse has been hired to call on patients within two days of discharge to check on how things are going. That is, Brocato says, “whether they understood the discharge instructions, to make sure that they got their prescriptions, and [to ensure] they have some kind of follow-up appointment made and are planning to go to that.”

A 2001 study conducted by the section of general internal medicine in the department of medicine at West Virginia University (Morgantown) showed that the effect of employing a nurse discharge planner to work with the hospitalist service had a positive effect on outcomes in an academic teaching hospital.1 When a general medicine service, specialist-staffed service, and a hospitalist service with nurse discharge planner were compared, the hospitalist-discharge planner group was associated with a lower average cost and shorter average length of hospital stay. There was no apparent compromise in clinical outcomes and patient satisfaction with care.

Competent Colleagues

The American Case Management Association (ACMA), begun in 1999, is the first and only nonprofit hospital-based case management organization in the United States. It represents nurses, social workers, physicians, and other professionals who practice hospital case management. The physicians whom ACMA represents are primarily medical directors hired as the catalyst for attendings who are less than cooperative and are impeding discharge (typically not the hospitalists). “The organization is growing at an average annual growth rate of 25%,” says Cunningham. “We’ve just started a new certification process for hospital-based case managers—one for nurses and one for social workers.”

There is a core portion to the exam that tests for knowledge, and a specialty portion of the exam in which “they have to validate those skill sets. The specialty portion of includes a clinical simulation, which is the application of their skills and knowledge,” explains Cunningham. “They have to [show that they can] make not only a decision, but sequential decisions. So we’re testing their ability to take a case and work through it.”

The hospitalist should expect that high level of competency from a case manager, just as the case manager should be able to expect the highest competency of the hospitalist. “The hospitalist should not lessen their expectation of the clinical competency of the case managers,” says Cunningham. “We are advocating that the physicians … increase their expectations of the clinical competency of those individuals.”

Cunningham recommends that hospitalists discuss their case manager’s background if they suspect there is a diminished competency. “Competent case managers “not only make it better for patients,” he says, “but practitioners’ lives are made much easier when competent case managers are hired.”

All the case managers at Cabrini Hospital have a strong clinical background. “It is really important that the case managers are competent in the field they are working in,” says Brocato, “so that the physicians can trust that they understand the clinical side as well as what might be needed at discharge planning. [At Cabrini Hospital] they are placed in the units where they work based on their careers as nurses. The case manager that works in ICU, for instance, was an ICU nurse for many years.”

Brocato believes “hospitalists need to feel confident that the case managers—or discharge planners as they’re called at some hospitals—have a strong clinical background. In that way, when the hospitalists “are discussing their cases, they feel that we know what they’re talking about. For us, it means that we feel we are all on the same page when we’re dealing with the physicians so that we know what the course of treatment will be. Then the case managers are able to make a better discharge plan based on what the expectations of the hospital stay are going to be, so we can plan ahead.”

Dr. Weisul, who oversees three healthcare facilities in the central Louisiana region, knows that the relationship between hospitalists and case managers can be a fruitful one for all concerned. Cabrini has achieved the lowest case mix-adjusted length of stay in its healthcare system. In addition, when physicians were surveyed regarding the discharge planning process provided to their patients, the hospital achieved a combined rate of 97% “satisfied” or “very satisfied.”

“The idea that case management can achieve, with the physician, a low length of stay does not necessarily have to be in an environment of contention,” says Dr. Weisul.


Realize that case managers are there to assist hospitalists meet patients’ care goals. Watch for patients who a need longer length of stay and alert case managers in those cases to ensure moving them to appropriate levels of care, such as long-term acute care setting as soon as possible. Let case managers know how patients and families can reach you post-discharge. Expect the highest standard of competency from case managers and work with hospital administrators and case management to consistently make this a reality. TH

Andrea Sattinger writes regularly for The Hospitalist.


  1. Palmer HC Jr, Armistead NS, Elnicki DM, et al. The effect of a hospitalist service with nurse discharge planner on patient care in an academic teaching hospital. Am J Med. 2001;111:627-632.


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