Hospital Patient Safety, Quality Movement Helped Propel Hospitalists


Dr. Kealey

Hippocrates, Epidemics.“The Physician must be able to do good or to do no harm.”

This is part three of my ongoing series on the journey of hospital medicine and how we are poised for greater things yet. In part one, “Tinder and Spark,” macro changes in the American healthcare landscape pressured primary care physicians to get creative with new ways to practice, the most prominent result being the creation of hospitalist practices. Wachter and Goldman provided the spark that gave the field its name and cohesiveness. In part two, “Fuel,” the Baby Boomers shaped the field, setting the stage for the Generation X physicians who fueled HM’s early growth.

But the field might have stagnated there, the fire attenuated, if not for the rise of something new, something that stoked our growth to new heights.

Orlando, Fla., December 2006.

SHM President-Elect Rusty Holman, MD, MHM, was on stage representing hospitalists at the annual Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) National Forum in front of more than 5,000 enthusiastic attendees representing every discipline of clinical care from hundreds of healthcare organizations across the country and internationally. This was a special event. Two years earlier, IHI President Don Berwick, MD, MPP, had launched an audacious campaign, called the 100,000 Lives Campaign, that aimed to prevent the deaths of 100,000 patients in our nation’s hospitals in the following 18 months, not by utilizing some great new technological advance but by changing the culture around safety and quality in our nation’s hospitals and enacting proven safety methods and processes.1 Out of this plan came widespread use of terms and programs that weren’t widely adopted then but are familiar to all of us now: rapid response teams, medicine reconciliation, surgical site infection prevention, and ventilator-acquired pneumonia.

That program estimated that it saved 122,000 lives.1

In 2002, the Joint Commission released its first set of National Patient Safety Goals. There were seven, and key goals for hospitalists included improving the effectiveness of communication among caregivers, reducing the risk of healthcare-acquired infections, and reconciling medications.

IHI was looking to build on the safety and quality infrastructure that had been built up to make the 100,000 Lives Campaign a success and to launch an even bigger program. The 5 Million Lives Campaign’s goal was to reduce incidents of harm in five million patients over the next two years. For this campaign, IHI understood that success could only be achieved with partners. SHM and the field of hospital medicine, which had grown in size and influence, was seen as a critical and influential partner in achieving the goal of reducing harm in our nation’s hospitals. Thus, Dr. Holman was standing on that stage for SHM at the launch of the biggest safety and quality initiative in our nation’s history. SHM was among seven partner organizations, including the American Nurses Association, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the American Heart Association, and the CDC. SHM was the only medical society represented. Pretty heady stuff for a field barely 10 years old. How did we get there? For that story, we need to go back a few years.

In 1984, Libby Zion, an 18-year-old college student, died from serotonin syndrome. A contributing factor was felt to be overworked residents not getting enough sleep. In his landmark 1990 article, “Human Factors in Hazardous Situations,” James Reason, PhD, introduced the world to some key concepts: active versus latent errors and the Swiss cheese model of errors.2 These concepts influence our thinking to this day. In 1994, Betsy Lehman, a health reporter for the Boston Globe, died from a massive chemotherapy overdose. That same year Lucian Leape, MD, a Harvard pediatric surgeon, published his influential article in JAMA, “Errors in Medicine,” which called for a systems approach to improving patient safety.3

These key moments in safety and quality, all of which occurred in the years leading up to hospitalists gaining their identity, were but a prelude to the widespread patient safety and quality movement. Like our own social movement, “Patient Safety and Quality” was born with an influential publication. This was the 1999 release of the Institute of Medicine’s “To Err is Human,” a report that reiterated claims that up to 98,000 U.S. patients per year were dying from medical errors.4 It also supported Dr. Leape’s earlier work calling for systems changes. In 2001, the Institute of Medicine published a second report, “Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century,” which introduced the six aims for healthcare improvement: safe, timely, effective, efficient, equitable, and patient-centered.5

Before 1999, hospitalists were just getting their feet on the ground. Groups were experimenting with practice models and recruiting young talent, mostly with a pitch for a new way to practice with freedom to design their day and often an interesting work schedule.

After the publication of “To Err is Human” in 1999, changes in patient safety and quality began to accelerate. Taking one of the recommendations from “To Err is Human,” which suggested that employers should use their market power to improve quality and safety, the Leapfrog Group, a consortium of large employers, organized in 2000. Leapfrog began rewarding and recognizing hospitals that put accepted safety measures in place.6 Suddenly, hospital CEOs began to see tangible rewards for improving quality in their hospitals.

Here is where the hospitalist movement and the patient safety and quality movement began to intersect.

Shift to Quality and Safety

In 2001, the same year “Crossing the Quality Chasm” was published, Congress created the Center for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety within the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Significant funding was suddenly available for quality and safety research, and a more organized reporting mechanism for quality would soon be available.

In 2002, the Joint Commission released its first set of National Patient Safety Goals. There were seven, and key goals for hospitalists included improving the effectiveness of communication among caregivers, reducing the risk of healthcare-acquired infections, and reconciling medications.

And, lastly, as if that weren’t enough activity in the patient safety and quality world, the Joint Commission and CMS released in 2003 the first joint, aligned set of core measures, with which we are all now very familiar, around acute myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, and pneumonia.

Hospital executives were trying to get a handle on the meaning of this flurry of activity for their hospitals. It certainly meant new regulatory requirements. It probably meant greater visibility to the public around what happened behind the walls of their facilities. No doubt dollars on the line wouldn’t be too far behind. They needed help, and they needed it fast.

No longer were hospitalists a small group of young docs roaming the halls; now, instead of just taking care of one patient at a time, they were reaching the threshold of size—and even status in some organizations—where they could leverage their working knowledge of the system and presence on site to affect the various facets of quality now being measured and incented. Additionally, as the information technology (IT) revolution rolled out, hospitalists, mostly tech-savvy Gen X’ers, looked to ease the transition into the new world of EHRs, which promised to serve as a new base for improving quality.

As the C-suite continued making value calculations in their heads, they saw that, in addition to helping them manage the many facets of the transition of primary care and specialty teaching attendings out of the hospital, hospitalists could now be a powerful weapon in helping them stay competitive in the looming patient safety and quality revolution. They pulled out their checkbooks.

When SHM first started gathering data to explore this gap, we discovered that in 2003 the reported median support per FTE of an adult hospitalist in this country was $60,000.7 With an estimated 11,000 hospitalists in the country at that time, C-suite funders paid out over $600 million to help overcome the deficit between hospitalist professional billings and salary and benefits. By the time SHM partnered with IHI on the 5 Million Lives Campaign in 2006, the figure stood at well over $2 billion. The 2011 SHM/Medical Group Management Association survey data showed $139,090 support per FTE. With 31,000 U.S. hospitalists estimated at the time, that figure had doubled to over $4 billion in just five years’ time.

The new generation of doctors had come along in the late 1990s looking for a practice that fit their wants and needs. HM gave them what they were looking for: autonomy, the promise of work-life balance, and the ability to help patients in their most vulnerable time. The traditional E&M [evaluation and management]-based funding mechanisms simply weren’t designed to account for physicians who spend all of their time doing the critical cognitive and coordinating clinical work. To account for this, hospitals and medical groups, seeing the value to their organizations in this new specialty, anteed up to cover the difference. That gave us a great beginning.

But it was the convergence of the early hospitalist movement and the emergent patient safety and quality movement that created a synergy that propelled both movements forward. Boosted by the influx of funding directly and indirectly related to patient safety and quality, hospitalists grew in number from an estimated 5,000 physicians at the 1999 publication of “To Err is Human” to north of 40,000 today.

The synergy was evident when SHM President-Elect Dr. Holman, representing our fledgling specialty and society, faced that cheering throng in Orlando alongside Dr. Don Berwick, the face of the patient safety and quality movement.

But that’s not quite the end of the story.

To get us up to the present and on to our bright future, there will be a few more additions to the quality story and an all-new generation arriving on the scene to shake things up.

Dr. Kealey is SHM president and medical director of hospital specialties at HealthPartners Medical Group in St. Paul, Minn.


  1. Institute for Healthcare Improvement. Overview of the 100,000 Lives Campaign. Available at: http://www.ihi.org/Engage/Initiatives/Completed/5MillionLivesCampaign/Documents/Overview%20of%20the%20100K%20Campaign.pdf. Accessed July 6, 2014.
  2. Broadbent DE, Reason J, Baddeley A, eds. Human Factors in Hazardous Situations: Proceedings of a Royal Society Discussion Meeting Held on 28 and 29 June 1989. Gloucestershire, England: Clarendon Press; 1990:475-484.
  3. Leape LL. Error in medicine JAMA.1994;272(23):1851-1857.
  4. Institute of Medicine. Kohn LT, Corrigan JM, Donaldson MS, eds. To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System. Washington, D.C.: The National Academy Press; 2000.
  5. Institute of Medicine. Committee on Quality of Healthcare in America. Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century. Washington, D.C.: The National Academy Press; 2001.
  6. The Leapfrog Group. About Leapfrog. Available at: http://www.leapfroggroup.org/about_leapfrog. Accessed July 6, 2014.
  7. Society of Hospital Medicine. SHM’s State of Hospital Medicine Surveys 2003-2012. Available at: www.hospitalmedicine.org/survey. Accessed July 3, 2014.

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