Patient Care

The Year Ahead


Rising pressure to contain healthcare costs, increasing demands for safety and quality improvement, more focus on institutional accountability: In 2010, healthcare experts expect several dominant themes to continue converging and moving hospitalists even more to the center of key policy debates.

Peter Pronovost, MD, PhD, medical director of the Center for Innovation in Quality Patient Care and director of the Quality and Safety Research Group at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, sees three big themes moving to the fore. One is a greater focus on outcome measurements and accountability for performance, and he expects both carrots and sticks to be wielded. “So, both payment reform and social humiliation, or making things public,” Dr. Pronovost says. “Two, I see a lot more focus on measures that are population-based rather than hospital-based, so looking more at episodes of care.” The shift will force hospitalists to expand their purview beyond the hospital and, he says, partner more with community physicians to develop and monitor performance in such areas as transitions of care and general benchmarks of care.

Dr. Pronovost also expects “significant pressure on both the provider organization and individual clinician being paid less for what they do.” Finding ways to minimize costs will be a priority as payors increase scrutiny on expenses like unnecessary hospital readmissions. But hospitalists, he says, are better positioned than many other physicians to play a key role in the drive toward efficiency while also improving healthcare quality and safety. “I think hospitalists’ roles are going to go up dramatically,” Dr. Pronovost adds, “and I hope the field responds by making sure they put out people who have the skills to lead.”

End-of-Life Issues

Nancy Berlinger, PhD, deputy director and research scholar at The Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y., cites end-of-life care as another theme likely to gain traction in 2010. As project director of the center’s revised ethical guidelines for end-of-life care, Dr. Berlinger notes how often clinicians in her working group have invoked the hospitalist profession. It’s no accident. “Hospitalists are increasingly associated with the care of patients on Medicare,” she says, adding Medicare beneficiaries are far more likely to be nearing the end of life.

Demographics suggest that connection will continue to grow in 2010 and beyond. Dr. Berlinger points to a 2009 New England Journal of Medicine study showing that the odds of a hospitalized Medicare patient receiving care from a hospitalist increased at a brisk 29.2% annual clip from 1997 through 2006.1 And while the U.S. faces a shortage of geriatricians, HM is growing rapidly as a medical profession. “By default, whether or not hospitalists self-identify as caring for older Americans,” Dr. Berlinger says, “this is their area of practical specialization.”

With that specialization comes added responsibility to assist with advanced-care planning and helping patients to document their wishes. Similarly, she says, it means acknowledging that these patients are more likely to have comorbid conditions and identify with goals of care. “I don’t think there’s any way around this,” she says. “Medicare and hospitalists, whether by accident or design, are increasingly joined at the hip. That is something that hospitalists, as a profession, will always need to keep their eye on.”

A parallel trend is that other doctors increasingly view hospitalists as hospital specialists. “The hospitalist’s responsibilities are not just in terms of the patients they care for, but also in terms of the institution itself,” Dr. Berlinger says. Non-staff physicians, for example, expect hospitalists to know how a hospital’s in-patient care system works. Practically speaking, as electronic medical records (EMR) become more commonplace, hospitalists will be increasingly relied upon to understand a hospital’s information technology.

I think hospitalists’ roles are going to go up dramatically, and I hope the field responds by making sure they put out people who have the skills to lead.

—Peter Pronovost, MD, PhD, medical director, Center for Innovation in Quality Patient Care, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore

New Economy, New Hospital Landscape

Douglas Wood, MD, chair of the Division of Health Care Policy and Research at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., points to language in the federal healthcare reform legislation as evidence that hospitals and hospitalists will need to be in sync in other ways to avoid future penalties. One provision, for example, would increase the penalties for hospital-acquired infections. Other language seeks to reduce unnecessary readmissions.

Likewise, Dr. Wood says, addressing geographical variations in healthcare payments driven largely by unnecessary overutilization—including excessive use of ICU care, in-patient care, imaging, and specialist services—might mean asking hospitalists to take on more aspects of patient care.

Meanwhile, increased interest in demonstration projects that might achieve savings (e.g., accountable care organizations and bundled payments) suggests that proactive hospitals should again look to hospitalists. The flurry of new proposals won’t fundamentally change hospitalists’ responsibilities to provide effective and efficient care, “but it will put more emphasis on what they’re doing,” Dr. Wood says, “to the degree that hospitalists could take a lead in demonstrating how you can provide better outcomes at a lower overall utilization of resources.”

Regardless of how slowly or quickly these initiatives proceed at the national level, he says, hospitalists should be mindful that several states are well ahead of the curve and are likely to be more aggressive in instituting policy changes.

The Bottom Line

If there’s a single, overriding theme for 2010, Bradley Flansbaum, DO, MPH, FACP, FHM, director of hospitalist services at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and a member of SHM’s Public Policy Committee, says it might be that of dealing with the unknown. Squeezing healthcare costs and more tightly regulating inflation will have a greater effect on a hospital’s bottom line and thus impact what’s required of hospitalists. Even so, the profession will have to wait and see whether and how various proposals are codified and implemented. “We don’t know exactly what things are going to look like,” he says.

Nor is there a good sense of how new standards for transparency, quality, and accountability might be measured. “While people want more measurement and they want more report-card-type information, the data that we can acquire right now and how we analyze that data are still fairly primitive,” Dr. Flansbaum says. Even current benchmarks are lacking in how to determine who’s doing a good job and who isn’t, he says.

One big question that must be answered, then: Are we even looking at the right measurements? “Or, do the right measurements exist, or do we have the databases, the registries, the sources, to make the decisions we need to make?” he says.

Any new proposals will require another round of such questions and filling-in of blanks to add workable details to vague and potentially confusing language.

“I think we know that change is afoot, and most smart hospitalists know that the system needs to run leaner,” Dr. Flansbaum says. “But how each one of us is going to function in our hospital, and the kinds of demands that will be placed on us, and what we’re going to need to do with the doctors in the community and the other nonphysician colleagues that we work with, is all really unknown.” TH

Bryn Nelson is a freelance medical writer based in Seattle.


  1. Kuo YF, Sharma G, Freeman JL, Goodwin JS. Growth in the care of older patients by hospitalists in the United States. N Engl J Med. 2009;360(11): 1102-1112.


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