Practice Management

Hospitalists confront administrative, financial challenges of COVID-19 crisis


Hospitals respond to the fiscal crisis

Hospitals in other parts of the country also report significant fiscal fallout from the COVID-19 crisis, with predictions that 100 or more hospitals may be forced to close. Jeff Dye, president of the New Mexico Hospital Association, told the Albuquerque Journal on May 1 that hospitals in his state have been squeezed on all sides by increased costs, patients delaying routine care, and public health orders restricting elective surgeries. New Mexico hospitals, especially in rural areas, face incredible financial strain.

The University of Virginia Medical Center, Charlottesville, recently announced 20% reductions in total compensation for its providers through July 31, along with suspension of retirement contributions. Those changes won’t affect team members caring for COVID-19 patients. And the Spectrum Health Medical Group of 15 hospitals in western Michigan, according to Michigan Public Radio, told its doctors they either needed to sign “contract addendums” giving the system more control over their hours – or face a 25% pay cut, or worse.

Cheyenne (Wyo.) Regional Medical Center issued a statement April 24 that it expected losses of $10 million for the month of April. “CRMC, like every other hospital in Wyoming, is certainly feeling the financial impact that COVID-19 is having,” CEO Tim Thornell told the Cowboy State Daily on April 24. That includes a 30% reduction in inpatient care and 50% reduction in outpatient care, while the hospital has only had a handful of COVID-19 patients at any time. Capital projects are now on hold, overtime is limited, and a hiring freeze is in effect.

“We’re certainly prepared for a larger surge, which hasn’t come yet,” Mr. Thornell said in an interview. CRMC’s ICU was split to create a nine-bed dedicated COVID-19 unit. Intensivists see most of the critical care patients, while the hospital’s 15 directly-employed hospitalists are treating all of the non-ICU COVID-19 patients. “Among themselves, the hospitalists volunteered who would work on the unit. We’ve been fortunate enough to have enough volunteers and enough PPE [personal protective equipment],” he said.

Preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened the medical center’s relationship with its hospitalists, Mr. Thornell explained. “Hospitalists are key to our operations, involved in so much that happens here. We’re trying to staff to volume with decreased utilization. We’ve scaled back, which only makes fiscal sense. Now, how do we reinfuse patients back into the mix? Our hospitalists are paid by the number of shifts, and as you distribute shift reductions over 15 providers, it shouldn’t be an intolerable burden.” But two open hospitalist positions have not been filled, he noted.

CRMC is trying to approach these changes with a Lean perspective, Mr. Thornell said. “We had already adopted a Lean program, but this has been a chance to go through a life-altering circumstance using the tools of Lean planning and applying them instantaneously.”

Providers step up

At Emory Healthcare in Atlanta, a major center for COVID-19 cases, communication has been essential in the crisis, said Bryce Gartland, MD, SFHM, Emory’s hospital group president and cochief of clinical operations. “Our group was prepared for a significant influx of patients. Like every other institution, we made the decision to postpone elective care, with a resulting plummet in volume,” he said.

Dr. Bryce Gartland Hospital Group President and Co-Chief of Clinical Operations for Emory Healthcare

Dr. Bryce Gartland

As COVID-19 patients entered the Emory system, frontline hospitalists stepped up to care for those patients. “We’ve had ample providers in terms of clinical care. We guaranteed our physicians’ base compensation. They have flexed teams up and down as needed.” Advanced practice professionals also stepped up to bridge gaps.

With regard to the return of volumes of non–COVID-19 patients, the jury’s still out, Dr. Gartland said. “None of us has a crystal ball, and there are tremendous variables and decision points that will have significant impact. We have started to see numbers of time-sensitive and essential cases increase as of the first week of May.”

What lies ahead will likely include some rightsizing to future volumes. On top of that, the broader economic pressures on hospitals from high rates of unemployment, uninsured patients, bad debt, and charity care will push health care systems to significantly address costs and infrastructure, he said. “We’re still early in planning, and striving to maintain flexibility and nimbleness, given the uncertainties to this early understanding of our new normal. No hospital is immune from the financial impact. We’ll see and hear about more of these conversations in the months ahead.”

But the experience has also generated some positives, Dr. Gartland noted. “Things like telehealth, which we’ve been talking about for years but previously faced barriers to widespread adoption.” Now with COVID-19, the federal government issued waivers, and barriers – both internal and external – came down. “With telehealth, what will the role and deployment of hospitalists look like in this new model? How will traditional productivity expectations change, or the numbers and types of providers? This will make the relationship and partnership between hospitalist groups and hospital administrators ever more important as we consider the evolution toward new care models.”

Dr. Gartland said that “one of the great things about hospital medicine as a field is its flexibility and adaptability. Where there have been gaps, hospitalists were quick to step in. As long as hospital medicine continues to embrace those kinds of behaviors, it will be successful.” But if the conversation with hospitals is just about money, it will be harder, he acknowledged. “Where there is this kind of disruption in our usual way of doing things, there are also tremendous opportunities for care model innovation. I would encourage hospitalist groups to try to be true value partners.”

Command center mode

Like other physicians in hospital C-suites, Chad Whelan MD, FACP, SFHM, chief executive officer of Banner–University Medicine in Tucson, Ariz., led his two hospitals into command center mode when the crisis hit, planning for a surge of COVID-19 cases that could overwhelm hospital capacity.

Dr. Chad T. Whelan, Banner-University Medicine Tucson (Ariz.)

Dr. Chad T. Whelan

“In terms of our hospitalists, we leaned in to them hard in the beginning, preparing them to supervise other physicians who came in to help if needed,” he said. “Our [non–COVID-19] census is down, revenues are down, and the implications are enormous – like nothing we’ve ever seen before.”

“We’re fortunate that we’re part of the Banner health system. We made a decision that we would essentially keep our physicians financially protected through this crisis,” Dr. Whelan said. “In return, we called on them to step up and be on the front lines and to put in enormous hours for planning. We asked them to consider: How could you contribute if the surge comes?”

He affirmed that hospital medicine has been a major part of his medical center’s planning and implementation. “I’ve been overwhelmed by the degree to which the entire delivery team has rallied around the pandemic, with everybody saying they want to keep people safe and be part of the solution. We have always had hospitalist leaders at the table as we’ve planned our response and as decisions were made,” said Dr. Whelan, a practicing hospitalist and teaching service attending since 2000 until he assumed his current executive position in Arizona 18 months ago.

“While we have kept people whole during the immediate crisis, we have acknowledged that we don’t know what our recovery will look like. What if [non–COVID-19] volume doesn’t return? That keeps me awake at night,” he said. “I have talked to our physician leadership in hospital medicine and more broadly. We need to ask ourselves many questions, including: do we have the right levels of staffing? Is this the time to consider alternate models of staffing, for example, advanced practice providers? And does the compensation plan need adjustments?”

Dr. Whelan thinks that the COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity for hospital medicine to more rapidly explore different models and to ask what additional value hospitalists can bring to the care model. “For example, what would it mean to redefine the hospitalist’s scope of practice as an acute medicine specialist, not defined by the hospital’s four walls?” he noted.

“One of the reasons our smaller hospital reached capacity with COVID-19 patients was the skilled nursing facility located a few hundred feet away that turned into a hot spot. If we had imported the hospital medicine model virtually into that SNF early on, could there have been a different scenario? Have we thought through what that would have even looked like?” Dr. Whelan asked.

He challenges the hospital medicine field, once it gets to the other side of this crisis, to not fall back on old way of doing things. “Instead, let’s use this time to create a better model today,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do at a system level at Banner, with our hospital medicine groups partnering with the hospital. I want to see our hospitalists create and thrive in that new model.”


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