Reversion to old systems
After the peak in late May, new COVID-19 cases in India began to decrease, and the second wave waned on a national level. Hospitals began to get the supplies they needed, beds are available, and patients aren’t as sick as before, according to Dr. Adhikari. The federal government has begun issuing supplies to patients in each state, including COVID-19 vaccines. “The peak for the second wave is gone,” he said.
What remains is a group of physicians trained in how to triage patients and create efficiencies in a hospital setting. Could those skills be put to use elsewhere in India after the pandemic?
According to Dr. Bhatt, the patient care model is likely to revert to the system that existed before. “Whatever the changes, interims of bed occupancy, cost of ICU will be temporary [and] will change to normal,” he said. “But awareness about masks [and] sanitizing methods will be permanent.”
Dr. Adhikari believes that not utilizing the skills of newly minted hospitalists in India would be a missed opportunity. “This is a silver lining from COVID-19, that hospital medicine plays a vital role in the sickest patients, whether it is in India or the U.S. or anywhere,” he said. “I think the model of hospital medicine should be adopted. It’s not: ‘Should it really be adopted or not?’ It should be. There is a huge potential in doing inpatient coordinated [care], having people dedicated in the hospital.”
There are tangible benefits to creating efficiencies in India’s health system, Dr. Odeti said. Length of stay for sicker patients “was much longer” at 10-14 days during the second wave, compared with the United States, before lowering to around 5 days. “These hospitals right now are learning the efficient ways of doing it: when to send [patients] out, how to send them out, how to [perform] service-based practices, creating processes which were nonexistent before.”
While he doesn’t personally believe physicians will adopt a full-fledged hospitalist model unless the payer structure in India changes, “these people are at an advantage with this extra set of skills,” he said. “I think all the knowledge that these people have are going to come in handy.”
Opportunities for growth
Dr. Odeti sees the potential for the hospitalist model to grow in India – if not into its own specialty, then in how critical care consultants handle sicker patients and handoffs.
“The critical care clinician cannot keep the patient from the time they are admitted to the ICU until the discharge, so there will be a need for the transition,” Dr. Odeti said. “In the past, there were not many capabilities in Indian health systems to take care of these extremely sick patients, and now it is evolving. I think that is one more thing that will help.”
Dr. Adhikari said hospital systems in India are beginning to realize how having dedicated hospital physicians could benefit them. In India, “if you’re sick, you go to your doctor, you get treated and you disappear,” he said. The next time, you may see the same doctor or a completely different doctor. “There’s no system there, so it’s really hard for hospital medicine as such because patients, when they are very sick, they just come to the ER. They’re not followed by their primary care.”
Anecdotally, Dr. Odeti sees patients already adapting to having access to a physician for asking questions normally answered by primary care physicians. “I think primary care will come into play,” he said. “When I was doing a Zoom call for patients, they were asking me questions about sciatica. I think they are getting comfortable with this technology.”
A hospitalist model could even be applied to specific diseases with a large population of patients. Hospital administrators “have seen this for the first time, how efficient it could be if they had their own hospitalists and actually run it. So that’s the part that has crossed their minds,” Dr. Adhikari said. “How they will apply it going forward, other than during the COVID-19 pandemic, depends on the size of the hospital and the volume of the patients for a particular disease.”
“You can see in certain areas there is large growth for hospital medicine. But to rise to the level of the United States and how we do it, India needs bigger health systems to adopt the model,” Dr. Adhikari said.