The skill set of the ‘pluripotent’ hospitalist


Editor’s note: National Hospitalist Day occurs the first Thursday in March annually, and serves to celebrate the fastest growing specialty in modern medicine and hospitalists’ enduring contributions to the evolving health care landscape. On National Hospitalist Day in 2021, SHM convened a virtual roundtable with a diverse group of hospitalists to discuss skill set, wellness, and other key issues for hospitalists. To listen to the entire roundtable discussion, visit this Explore The Space podcast episode.

A hospitalist isn’t just a physician who happens to work in a hospital. They are medical professionals with a robust skill set that they use both inside and outside the hospital setting. But what skill sets do hospitalists need to become successful in their careers? And what skill sets does a “pluripotent” hospitalist need in their armamentarium?

Dr. Maylyn S. Martinez, hospitalist, University of Chicago

Dr. Maylyn S. Martinez

These were the issues discussed by participants of a virtual roundtable discussion on National Hospitalist Day – March 4, 2021 – as part of a joint effort of the Society of Hospital Medicine and the Explore the Space podcast.

Maylyn S. Martinez, MD, clinician-researcher and clinical associate at the University of Chicago, sees her hospitalist and research skill sets as two “buckets” of skills she can sort through, with diagnostic, knowledge-based care coordination, and interpersonal skills as lanes where she can focus and improve. “I’m always trying to work in, and sharpen, and find ways to get better at something in each of those every day,” she said.

For Anika Kumar, MD, FHM, pediatric editor of the Hospitalist and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine, much of her work is focused on problem solving. “I approach that as: ‘How do I come up with my differential diagnosis, and how do I diagnose the patient?’ I think that the lanes are a little bit different, but there is some overlap.”

Dr. Ndidi Unaka, associate program director of the pediatric residency training program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital

Dr. Ndidi Unaka

Adaptability is another important part of the skill set for the hospitalist, Ndidi Unaka, MD, MEd, associate professor in the division of hospital medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said during the discussion. “I think we all really value teamwork, and we take on the role of being the coordinator and making sure things are getting done in a seamless and thoughtful manner. Communicating with families, communicating with our research team, communicating with primary care physicians. I think that is something we’re very used to doing, and I think we do it well. I think we don’t shy away from difficult conversations with consultants. And I think that’s what makes being a hospitalist so amazing.”

Achieving wellness as a hospitalist

Another topic discussed during the roundtable was “comprehensive care for the hospitalist” and how they can achieve a sense of wellness for themselves. Gurpreet Dhaliwal, MD, clinician-educator and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said long-term satisfaction in one’s career is less about compensation and more about autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Gurpreet Dhaliwal, MD, Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco,

Dr. Gurpreet Dhaliwal

“Autonomy is shrinking a little bit in health care. But if we connect to our purpose – ‘what are we doing here and how do we connect?’ – it’s either learning about patients and their stories, being with a team of people that you work with, that really builds that purpose,” he said.

Regarding mastery, there’s “tremendous joy if you’re in an environment where people value your mastery, whether it is working in a team or communicating or diagnosing or doing a procedure. If you think of setting up the work environment and those things are in place, I think a lot of wellness can actually happen at work, even though another component, of course, is balancing your life outside of work,” Dr. Dhaliwal said.

This may seem out of reach during COVID-19, but wellness is still achievable during the pandemic, Dr. Martinez said. Her time is spent 75% as a researcher and 25% as a clinician, which is her ideal balance. “I enjoy doing my research, doing my own statistics and writing grants and just learning about this problem that I’ve developed an interest in,” she said. “I just think that’s an important piece for people to focus on as far as health care for the hospitalist, is that there’s no no-one-size-fits-all, that’s for sure.”

Dr. Anika Kumar, Cleveland Clinic Children's

Dr. Anika Kumar

Dr. Kumar noted that her clinical time gives her energy for nonclinical work. “I love my clinical time. It’s one of my favorite things that I do,” she said. Although she is tired at the end of the week, “I feel like I am not only giving back to my patients and my team, but I’m also giving back to myself and reminding myself why it is I do what I do every day,” she said.

Wellness for Dr. Unaka meant remembering what drew her to medicine. “It was definitely the opportunity to build strong relationships with patients and families,” she said. While these encounters can sometimes be heavy and stay with a hospitalist, “the fact that we’re in it with them is something that gives a lot of us purpose. I think that when I reflect on all of those things, I’m so happy that I’m in the role that I am.”

Unique skills during COVID-19

Mark Shapiro, MD, hospitalist and host of the roundtable and the Explore the Space podcast, also asked the panelists what skills they unexpectedly leveraged during the pandemic. Communication – with colleagues and with the community they serve – was a universal answer among the panelists.

“I learned – really from seeing some of our senior leaders here do it so well – the importance of being visible, particularly at a time when people were not together and more isolated,” Dr. Unaka said. “I think being able to be visible when you can, in order to deliver really complicated or tough news or communicate about uncertainty, for instance. Being here for our residents – many of our interns moved here sight unseen. I think they needed to feel like they had some sense of normalcy and a sense of community. I really learned how important it was to be visible, and available, and how important the little things mattered.”

Dr. Martinez said that worrying about her patients with COVID-19 in the hospital and the uncertainty around the disease kept her up at night. “I think we always have a hard time leaving work at work and getting a good night’s sleep. I just could not let go of worrying about these patients and having terrible insomnia, trying to leave work at work and I couldn’t – even after they were discharged.”

Dr. Mark Shapiro

Dr. Mark Shapiro

Dr. Shapiro said the skill he most needed to work on during the pandemic was his courage. “I remember the first time I took care of COVID patients. I was scared. I have no problems saying that out loud. That was a scary experience.”

The demeanor of the nurses on his unit, who had already seen patients with COVID-19, helped ground him during those moments and gave him the courage to move forward. “They’d already been doing it and they were the same. Same affect, same jokes, same everything,” he said. “That actually really helped, and I’ve leaned on that every time I’ve been back on our COVID service.”

Importance of mental health

The COVID-19 pandemic has also shined a light on the importance of mental health. “I think it is important to acknowledge that as hospitalists who have been out on the bleeding edge for a year, mental health is critically important, and we know that we face shortages in that space for the public at large and also for our profession,” Dr. Shapiro said.

When asked about what mental health and self-care looks like for her, Dr. Kumar referenced the need for exercise, meditation, and yoga. “My mental health was better knowing that the people closest to me – whether they be colleagues or friends or family – their mental health was also in a good place and they were also in a good place. And that helped to build me up,” she said.

Dr. Unaka called attention to the stigma around mental health, particularly among physicians, and the lack of resources to address the issue. “It’s a real problem,” she said. “I think it’s at a point where we as a profession need to advocate on behalf of each other and on behalf of our trainees. And honestly, I think we need to view mental health as just ‘health’ and stop separating it out in order for us to move to a place where people feel like they can access what they need without feeling shame about it.”

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