From the Society

The past and future of hospital medicine

Challenges faced, and overcome


While I hope I’ll still be doing much the same work for many more years, I’m clearly at a stage of life that most of my career is behind me. So I guess it’s natural that I think about the past a little more than I used to. And one of the things that makes me smile is how I’m like George Costanza in The Comeback episode of “Seinfeld.”

Dr. John Nelson, cofounder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is codirector for SHM’s practice management courses.

Dr. John Nelson

In 1997 I had just delivered a presentation about what the future might hold for hospitalists to the roughly 110 attendees at the first in-person meeting of SHM (then known as the National Association of Inpatient Physicians). During the Q&A that followed, someone asked me what clinical content I would include in the hospitalist-specific test or board exam that I had speculated might be in our future. I took his tone and body language to suggest his main intent was to convey that I was crazy to think that such a test might ever be worthwhile.

A pregnant silence followed his question, after which I gave a tentative response that I worried made me sound dumb. So like George in “Seinfeld,” I continued to think about this, and days later came up with what I’m sure would have been a terrific comeback that would have gotten a robust laugh from the audience without being demeaning to the questioner. For the last 22 years I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me the same question so I can finally deliver my winner of a response.

There have been other missed opportunities, but when I think about the past and future of our field and our Society, I’m reminded of many past accomplishments and a promising future.

When Dr. Win Whitcomb and I founded SHM, I had the idea that, among its most important roles, would be serving as a forum for exchange of ideas among hospitalists and providing robust practice management resources for hospitalist groups. Through the efforts of so many people, including Angela Musial, the first SHM staff person, and so many other staff and members, we now have dozens of active special interest groups, informative publications, an active online discussion forum, and blogs. And our annual conference has grown a lot from that first meeting of 110 people; HM19 will bring together nearly 5,000 of us to educate, inspire, and support one another. Collectively, there are a lot of ideas being exchanged through SHM.

When SHM was brand new I had hope that it would grow. But I never guessed that hospital medicine would become the fastest-growing field in the history of U.S. health care.

I also never guessed that the term “nocturnist” would become a standard part of our field’s lexicon. I used it solely as a reliable way to get a laugh and find it really funny and delightful that it caught on.

And OB hospitalists? Neurohospitalists? I never saw these and the many other variations coming at all. But I see it as validating an idea first adopted by medicine and pediatrics. But dermatology hospitalists? Yep, that’s a thing too. The hospitalist model has been adopted, in at least a few places, by nearly every specialty in medicine.

And it is terrific that March 7, 2019, is the first National Hospitalist Day. SHM made this happen too.

I also think about the future of our field and see some pretty big challenges, though our past success as a field makes me confident we’ll navigate them effectively.

The burden of administrative, regulatory, and EHR-related tasks just keeps growing for hospitalists. This often means it is difficult or impossible see as many patients in a day as might have been reasonable in the past. In the near term, the only solution might be to reduce patient loads, but that isn’t a sustainable solution in the long term. I’m convinced we need to offload much of the work we do today that isn’t purely clinical, so that a typical hospitalist in the future can see more patients each day without working harder or longer.

I imagine a future in which the typical hospitalist goes home after seeing 20 or more patients in a day and isn’t completely exhausted and stressed, but sees it as a good day at work. I’m not sure exactly how we’ll get there, but it will probably include things like no longer having to devote any time or attention to whether the patient is inpatient or observation status, or whether they have had a qualifying 3-midnight stay so Medicare will cover a skilled nursing facility. I’m excited to see how this will evolve.

Dr. Nelson is cofounder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is codirector for SHM’s practice management courses.

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