Lead the Change


Modern medicine … certainly as it should be practiced by hospitalists, is the most information-intensive activity that human beings ever engaged in,” says Kenneth W. Kizer, MD, MPH, CEO and chairman of the board of Medsphere Systems Corporation in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

He should know. From his first healthcare-related position in 1969 as a hospital orderly at Stanford University Hospital, he rose to become the Under Secretary for Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—the CEO of the largest healthcare system in the nation. He is widely credited as being the chief architect and driving force behind the successful transformation of VA healthcare in the 1990s.

The VA’s 154 hospitals and 875 clinics, which serve 5.4 million patients, have been rated “best in class” by a number of independent groups since it implemented the changes in the 1990s.1 In a study conducted by the Rand Corporation, the VA scored higher compared with the U.S. private sector hospitals in every category except acute care, in which “the numbers ran neck and neck,” says Dr. Kizer. “Where the VA has done much better [than private sector hospitals] is in managing chronic disease and integrating prevention and health maintenance into the acute care program.”

Patricia Rose, a registered nurse at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore, scans a barcode before dispensing medicine to VA patient Allen Smith of Romney, W. Va. It is expected that in 10 years the private healthcare system of tracking patient information will be similar to the system currently in place in the VA.

Differences between a VA facility and one in the private sector are mostly “cosmetic and in the financing,” says Dr. Kizer. “The VA takes care of a particular patient population—veterans of military service—but it is a civilian practice that happens to be run by the federal government.”

According to a July 17, 2006, article in BusinessWeek, “The Best Medical Care in the U.S.,” the VA system provides about two-thirds of the care protocols recommended by organizations such as the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, compared with 50% provided in private sector hospitals.1 Also, as many as 8% of the prescriptions filled in private sector hospitals contain errors, but the VA’s prescription-related accuracy is greater than 99.997%. In addition, the VA spends an average of $5,000 per patient compared with the national average of $6,300.

Dr. Kizer’s focus on quality improvement at the VA should not be surprising in view of his long-time focus on improving the quality of healthcare. In his mind, an essential element in improving the quality of American healthcare is the widespread adoption of electronic health records (EHR).

When he arrived at his post at the VA in 1994, Dr. Kizer was pleasantly surprised to find advanced automated information management in place. The VA had been working on developing an EHR since 1978. As part Kizer’s transformation of the VA, all of the VA’s information systems were integrated, and VistA (an acronym for Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture) was launched in 1997. VistA is often the first thing that VA-affiliated hospitalists mention when they are asked what distinguishes VA hospitals from non-VA hospitals.

Key Features and Benefits of the VA

Sanjay Saint, MD, knows a great deal about academically affiliated VAs. He was a resident (July 1993-June 1995) and then chief medical resident at the San Francisco VA (June 1995-June 1996), an affiliate of the University of California at San Francisco. He was also a fellow at the University of Washington-affiliated Seattle VA (July 1996-June 1998), and for more than eight years he has been on the faculty at the University of Michigan as a professor of internal medicine (1998-2006). Dr. Saint is currently a hospitalist at the University of Michigan-affiliated Ann Arbor VA Hospital. He was also recently the acting chief of medicine there for six months (Dec. 2005-May 2006) while the permanent chief was on sabbatical.

The instant availability of the EHR system is a key benefit of practicing in a VA hospital, says Dr. Saint. “It involves not only being able to get up-to-date, relevant patient information at our VA but also the information obtained if the patient has been seen at other VAs.”

“One of the reasons why [the VA’s EHR] is so good is that it is fully integrated,” says Dr. Kizer. “Everything was made to fit together to begin with—in contrast to essentially all commercial products, which have been melded together from pieces that come from a variety of origins. Being fully integrated certainly increases the speed and efficiency of operations. The second reason why VistA is so good is that it was developed by clinicians for clinicians … .”

A key feature operating as part of the EHR is the focus on computer-based provider order entry (CPOE). CPOE can help physicians make correct clinical decisions, says Dr. Saint. He cites the example of a pilot test he and co-workers conducted at the Seattle VA: After 72 hours of urinary catheterization in a patient, an alert reminded physicians to remove the catheter. From that simple type of quality improvement experiment, the data revealed that those patients for whom the reminder had been used had a significantly reduced rate of infection compared with those for whom it had not.

One particularly good, but perhaps underutilized, aspect of the computerized system is the use of care protocols or models that can be used across the VA, says Peter Kaboli, MD, MS, hospitalist at the Iowa City VA Hospital, an affiliate of the University of Iowa. “And we could probably … have more available electronically [that] could be modified for the local care environment,” he says, adding that insulin protocols come to mind first.

Another key EHR feature is an extensive adverse event reporting system, including registering near misses. About 96% of prescriptions and physician orders are entered with the system; in private sector hospitals, the rough estimate is 8%. There is also a bar-coding system for verification of medications and identification of patients. The VA “has done a great job of changing the culture to foster systems-based care and to address errors and adverse patient outcomes straightforward[ly] and deal with them up front.”

In a study conducted by the Rand Corporation, the VA scored higher in every category except acute care, in which “the numbers ran neck and neck,” says Dr. Kizer. “Where the VA has done much better is in managing chronic disease and integrating prevention and health maintenance into the acute care program.”

Another distinguishing feature of the VA, says Dr. Saint, is its heavy investment in quality improvement and health services research (HSR). The VA has large repositories of administrative and clinical data for performing research with hospitalized patients. Dr. Saint also points out that a lot of the academic centers benefit from having a VA as an affiliate. “The house staff, medical students, and physicians often will be at the VA [and can] see the state-of-the-art electronic medical records and CPOE system and inquire, ‘Why can’t we have that at the university hospital?’ ”

Discharge: Seamless Transition

Dr. Kaboli can point to another advantage for hospital medicine in the VA: a concerted interest in developing hospitalists. Two-thirds of VA medical centers (VAMCs) use hospitalists, and two-thirds of inpatients are cared for by hospitalists. In total, approximately 400 hospitalists are employed by the VA, making it the largest single employer of hospitalists in the United States. Within two years, 75% of VAMCs will use hospitalists.2

Dr. Kaboli has also become well versed on the advantages of the VA’s EHR in the area of patient discharge. The greatest benefit to hospitalists of having a fully integrated medical record with CPOE and all inpatient and outpatient notes available in all the VA facilities across the country, he says, “is the almost seamless transition of these records both from the clinic side to the hospital and from the hospital back to the clinic.”

One “great luxury” of having that integrated system, Dr. Kaboli adds, is that a hospitalist can hand patients their discharge summaries and advise them to pass the information on in the next doctor’s visit. “Even though you’re going to send it via e-mail, [in a] fax, or by mail, you have that as another option to translate that information to other docs,” he explains. Hospitalists can also “alert other providers by making them co-signers to notes so that when it comes into their inbox, they know that a patient was discharged, and they get the discharge summary immediately.”

There is no connection electronically with non-VA providers, however, which is the same situation that exists in any other non-VA healthcare system. “We know [that] a fairly large percentage of veterans receive care, both within and outside the VA, who are what we call co-managed,” says Dr. Kaboli. “If a patient doesn’t live near a VA hospital or clinic, he may have to travel an hour or two, so that person might as well have a local doctor. Without that [EHR system], if [the patient is] speaking to a primary care physician in a local community, [that physician is] up against the same challenges as [someone who works] outside the VA.”

Get on the EHR Bandwagon

“The federal government has a crucial leadership role in promoting a national health information infrastructure,” said Dr. Kizer in his June 17, 2004 testimony to Congress. When asked about that statement, Dr. Saint (who is also director of the VA/University of Michigan Patient Safety Enhancement Program) has one piece of advice for his hospitalist colleagues. “You don’t want perfect to become the enemy of the very good,” he says. “Rather than waiting until there is a national technology information infrastructure, which may be years—if not decades—away, you can at least advocate for change in your own hospital.”

Use the VA as a model, he says. “You don’t have to use the exact same system, but at least you can point to some of the quality advantages that electronic medical records and CPOE can provide. You can also point out some of the advantages that investment in quality improvement and health services research can bring to an organization and say, ‘We can adapt—not necessarily adopt—what the VA has done.’ ”

How can hospitalists best do that? Many publications in the peer-reviewed literature address the quality improvement focus of the VA. There is also a VA Web site that discusses the focus on HSR and development (www1. A VA-sponsored national health services research and development (HSR&D) meeting, at which investigators from all over the country present their latest findings, is held annually in Washington, D.C., usually in February.

For the young hospitalist who wants to pursue additional training, Dr. Saint says, there are VA-funded fellowships, HSR&D, a quality scholars program, and other career development opportunities within the VA that promote leadership roles both in and outside the VA.

Dr. Kaboli suggests identifying networks of hospitalists within and outside of your own healthcare system that you can work with and learn from. Hospitalists can also collaborate in developing protocols that incorporate local modifications. Also, he suggests, “there are a lot of questions that come up in the day-to-day care of patients. If you have colleagues as interested as you are, as hospitalists, in the quality of care for hospitalized medical patients, you can tap into that passion. The SHM listservs are a great way to connect; one for VA hospitalists has just been organized.

Anyone interested in the OpenVista Electronic Health Record, Medsphere’s commercial product (which, Dr. Kizer says, “is VistA at the core” and is being marketed to hospitals and large clinics) can learn more at

Dr. Kizer says hospitalists will need to understand the needs of future healthcare and help prepare for and welcome it. “For example, performance measurement is an absolute part of the future of healthcare,” he says. “I think, by and large, hospitalists understand that better and are more accepting of that than certainly most docs in private practice.”

He believes hospitalists “can help promote that understanding among their peers and their hospitals and keep moving things forward as opposed to resisting it.” This is just one aspect of the “openness and transparency that we want to see in so many areas,” says Dr. Kizer, and hospitalists can be “pushing for the tools to make it happen. The hospitalists, I would think, should be leading the charge for electronic health records.”

Now and Tomorrow

Dr. Kizer, who is one of nine experts on veterans’ issues named to the newly formed Commission on the Future for America’s Veterans and is board certified in six medical specialties, also has a personal view on the work of hospital medicine. Recently, his wife was hospitalized in the ICU at the University of California at Davis Medical Center for a number of months, and Dr. Kizer says that a succession of hospitalists have served as her principal providers. It’s given him a more intimate view of what matters, beyond strictly clinical care, to patients and their families.

“By and large, I’ve always supported the hospitalist notion,” he says, “because it … supports my view [that] keeping up to date on all the science and technology and running an office practice [at the same time] is just more than you can reasonably expect anyone to do.” What he has especially noticed now, as a family caregiver visiting a hospital, “is that there is tremendous variability in how much [hospitalists] communicate with the patient and his or her family and how they view the episode of care within the context of the family and their community.”

Dr. Kizer, who has studied communications for a long time and in myriad ways, notes that a lot of the hospitalists he has met during this recent experience “think they’re communicating, but they often don’t take the time to determine if they are actually connecting with the family or addressing the issues that are important to the patient and family.”

In the same vein, he agrees that the better the electronic communication systems of a healthcare system—including proficiency in identifying medical errors—the more minutes can be freed up for a physician to pull up a chair and talk with a patient. “It is also a powerful tool to educate and to help inform,” he says. “For example, when [a hospitalist] can just quickly graph out where the patient’s blood pressure … or blood sugars or … creatinine has been, you can use the display of data to quickly educate the patient and/or the family about what has happened and where you need to go. One picture can save you 10 minutes of explaining.”


The VA has taken a lead in addressing the issues that have been brought up over the years by organizations such as the Institute of Medicine and the Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Their integrated electronic health records system can serve as a model for non-VA hospitals. Until there is a national integration of computerized technology, hospitalists can become advocates for improving their own hospital technology systems. “Electronic health records and hospitalists should go hand in glove,” concludes Dr. Kizer. “It’s potentially a great marriage of technology and the human element.” TH

Andrea Sattinger is a regular contributor to The Hospitalist.


  1. Arnst C. The best medical care in the U.S.: How Veterans Affairs transformed itself—and what it means for the rest of us. BusinessWeek online. July 17, 2006. Available at Last accessed October 20, 2006.
  2. Kaboli PJ, Barrett T, Vazirani S, et al. Growth of hospitalists in the Veterans Administration (VA) healthcare system: 1997-2005. Hosp Med. Abstract. 2006;1(S2):1-30.
  3. Lurie JD, Merrens EJ, Lee J, et al. An approach to hospital quality improvement. Med Clin North Am. 2002 Jul;86(4):825-845.

A Hospitalist Revolutionizes UCSD’s Online Clinical Systems

Dr. Lee combines his background as a physician and interest in technology in his job developing patient-care computer systems at the UCSD Medical Center.

Dr. Lee combines his background as a physician and interest in technology in his job developing patient-care computer systems at the UCSD Medical Center.

Josh Lee, MD, is a hospitalist. But Dr. Lee is also a computer geek, and the combination has served him and patient care well.

As medical director of Information Services at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), Dr. Lee has oversight over all online clinical systems, and that is no small task. With Dr. Lee’s guidance, UCSD is now a leader in the medical informatics movement. With the exception of physician documentation, the system has comprehensive electronic records; that is, some physicians still prefer to “wet-sign” their notes. Lab results at UCSD are 100% electronic, as is order entry for adult inpatients. “We have now completed what we call the entire order life cycle: physician orders, direct integrations through our pharmacy, pharmacy validation, and bar-coded administration at bedside,” he says.

As opposed to the VA’s homegrown EHR, UCSD did what many healthcare systems do: They bought an off-the-shelf product—this one was Invision from Siemens—but UCSD calls their product PCIS, for Patient Care Information Services.

“A lot of people are able to do cool stuff [with medical informatics],” says Dr. Lee, “but they have done it with a proprietary product, so it’s different than VA, where they are using something they have total control over.”

He says many people are now focused on order entry, “but I think the newest area of research and integration [involves the question], how do we communicate key clinical issues and follow-up for discharge?” (See Figure 1, above.) At UCSD Medical Center, these screens can be printed and the pages given directly to the patient upon discharge.) “We have leveraged our electronic system to ensure that, at the moment of discharge, not only is the patient informed about [his or her] care, but it is clear to anybody on our side, or from the side of the receiving physician, what is supposed to happen next.”

As any hospitalist knows, there can be a huge “voltage drop” in this area, as Robert Wachter, MD, professor and associate chairman at UCSF’s Department of Medicine, San Francisco, refers to it. Dr. Wachter is

And the great advantages of the VA’s electronic products are not available to the “99% of American hospitalists who don’t practice in closed systems,” says Dr. Lee.

Because most hospitalists don’t have that advantage, careful and complete discharge communications are imperative. That’s why UCSD built screens that can accommodate the specific information patients need, he says. “It’s different from the classic discharge summary, which is usually a lengthy, unwieldy, dictated document that is mostly [composed] after the patient leaves the hospital. This is done in real time … and these print-outs are immediately available for the patient.”

Before Dr. Lee came to UCSD, he worked with Drs. Jon Lurie, Mark Splaine, and Ed Merrens, all members of the general internal medicine division at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, N.H.3 As part of the team’s exploration of quality improvement and medical informatics, they particularly looked at how to adapt products to be workflow sensitive.

And one of the most important things Dr. Lee says he would tell his counterparts at other institutions is “to ensure that computerized solutions for safety and documentation are appropriately matched to the work flow.” He thinks that when these initiatives fail it is often due to an underappreciation of the impact that these changes and enhancements have on actual provision of care. “Do those things that are [the] most highly successful, leverage moments that you’re going to do anyway, but then automate it, make it safer, make it more comprehensive,” he says. “That’s my challenge to my colleagues.”—AS

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