From the Society

Was the success of hospital medicine inevitable?

Early on, SHM defined the specialty


When I started at the Society of Hospital Medicine – known then as the National Association of Inpatient Physicians (NAIP) – in January 2000, Bill Clinton was still president. There were probably 500 hospitalists in the United States, and SHM had about 200-250 members.

Dr. Larry Wellikson, CEO of the Society of Hospital Medicine

Dr. Larry Wellikson

It was so long ago that the iPhone hadn’t been invented, Twitter wasn’t even an idea, and Amazon was an online book store. SHM’s national offices were a cubicle at the American College of Physicians headquarters in Philadelphia, and our entire staff was me and a part-time assistant.

We have certainly come a long way in my 20 years as CEO of SHM.

When I first became involved with NAIP, it was to help the board with their strategic planning in 1998. At that time, the national thought leaders for the hospitalist movement (the term hospital medicine had not been invented yet) predicted that hospitalists would eventually do the inpatient work for about 25% of family doctors and for 15% of internists. Hospitalists were considered to be a form of “general medicine” without an office-based practice.

One of the first things we set about doing was to define the new specialty of hospital medicine before anyone else (e.g., American Medical Association, ACP, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, the government) defined us.

Most specialties were defined by a body organ (e.g., cardiology, renal), a population (e.g., pediatrics, geriatrics), or a disease (e.g., oncology), and there were a few other site-specific specialties (e.g., ED medicine, critical care). We felt that, to be a specialty, we needed certain key elements:

  • Separate group consciousness
  • Professional society
  • Distinct residency and fellowship programs
  • Separate CME
  • Distinct educational materials (e.g., textbooks)
  • Definable and distinct competencies
  • Separate credentials – certification and/or hospital insurance driven

Early on, SHM defined the Core Competencies for Hospital Medicine for adults in patient care and, eventually, for pediatric patients. We rebranded our specialty as hospital medicine to be more than just inpatient physicians, and to broadly encompass the growing “big tent” of SHM that included those trained in internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics, med-peds, as well as nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, and others.

We were the first and only specialty society to set the standard for hospitalist compensation (how much you are paid) and productivity (what you are expected to do) with our unique State of Hospital Medicine (SOHM) Report. Other specialties left this work to the Medical Group Management Association, the AMA, or commercial companies.

Our specialty was soon being asked to do things that no other group of clinicians was ever asked to do.

Hospitalists were expected to Save Money by reducing length of stay and the use of resources on the sickest patients. Hospitalists were asked to Improve Measurable Quality at a time when most other physicians or even hospitals weren’t even being measured.

We were expected to form and Lead Teams of other clinicians when health care was still seen as a solo enterprise. Hospitalists were expected to Improve Efficiency and to create a Seamless Continuity, both during the hospital stay and in the transitions out of the hospital.

Hospitalists were asked to do things no one else wanted to do, such as taking on the uncompensated patients and extra hospital committee work and just about any new project their hospital wanted to be involved in. Along the way, we were expected to Make Other Physicians’ Lives Better by taking on their inpatients, inpatient calls, comanagement with specialists, and unloading the ED.

And both at medical schools and in the community, hospitalists became the Major Educators of medical students, residents, nurses, and other hospital staff.

At the same time, SHM was focusing on becoming a very unique medical professional society.

SHM built on the energy of our young and innovative hospitalists to forge a different path. We had no reputation to protect. We were not bound like most other specialty societies to over 100 years of “the way it’s always been done.”

While other professional societies thought their role in quality improvement was to pontificate and publish clinical guidelines that often were little used, SHM embarked on an aggressive, hands-on, frontline approach by starting SHM’s Center for Quality Improvement. Over the last 15 years, the center has raised millions of dollars to deliver real change and improvement at hundreds of hospitals nationwide, many times bringing work plans and mentors to support and train local clinicians in quality improvement skills and data collection. This approach was recognized by the National Quality Forum and the Joint Commission with their prestigious John Eisenberg Award for Quality Improvement.

When we went to Washington to help shape the future of health care, we did not ask for more money for hospitalists. We did not ask for more power or to use regulations to protect our new specialty. Instead, we went with ideas of how to make acute medical care more effective and efficient. We could show the politicians and the regulators how we could reduce incidence of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary emboli, how we could make the hospital discharge process work better, how we could help chart a smoother medication reconciliation process, and so many other ways the system could be improved.

And even the way SHM generated our new ideas was uniquely different than other specialties. Way back in 2000 – long before Twitter and other social media were able to crowdsource and use the Internet to percolate new ideas – SHM relied on our members’ conversations on the SHM electronic mail discussion list to see what hospitalists were worried about, and what everyone was being asked to do, and SHM provided the resources and initiatives to support our nation’s hospitalists.

From these early conversations, SHM heard that hospitalists were being asked to Lead Change without much of an idea of the skills they would need. And so, the SHM leadership academies were born, which have now educated more than 2,700 hospitalist leaders.

Early on, we learned that hospitalists and even their bosses had no idea of how to start or run a successful hospital medicine group. SHM started our practice management courses and webinars and we developed the groundbreaking document, Key Characteristics of Effective Hospital Medicine Groups. In a typical SHM manner, we challenged most of our members to improve and get better rather trying to defend the status quo. At SHM, we have constantly felt that hospital medicine was a “work in progress.” We may not be perfect today, but we will be better in 90 days and even better in a year.

I have more to say about how we got this far and even more to say about where we might go. So, stay tuned and keep contributing to the future and success of SHM and hospital medicine.

Dr. Wellikson is the CEO of SHM. He has announced his plan to retire from SHM in late 2020. This article is the first in a series celebrating Dr. Wellikson’s tenure as CEO.

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