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Unintended Consequences: When Hospitalists Become Too Popular, Costs Rise

It’s the fastest growing “specialty” service in medicine: hospitalist medicine. These are the doctors who limit their practice to the care and management of patients admitted to the hospital. It has been wildly popular because it adds a shift-like work schedule to medical care for physicians while supposedly preserving their personal life. It also moves patients through the hospital faster, shortening length of stays. As one of our more esteemed hospitalist bloggers likes to boast: it’s a “WIN-WIN!”

At least until the hospitalist service gets too busy.

It seems now that hospitalists services are limiting the number of patients they admit per day in response to their overwhelming “popularity.” It’s something akin to capping resident medical student ward services – they stop accepting patients when their census gets too full. I learned this today when a patient I was trying to manage with heart failure was just not turning the corner and needed to be admitted for more agressive inotropic therapy.

Finding an admitting physician becomes an interesting exercise when the patient’s primary care doctor no longer admits to the hospital (or is on vacation as was the case today) and the hospitalist service is no longer accepting patients because they’re “capped” and you’re trapped in a busy clinic.

What becomes the pop-off valve? You guessed it: the Emergency Room. Even though the patient absolutely, positively does not need the Emergency Room.

So much for cost savings.

It appears hospitalist services are increasingly finding themselves overwhelmed with admissions and the promise of a reasonable lifestyle can be assured by either limiting the number of patients admitted to each hospitalist or hiring more of them. But new hires are becoming tougher to justify in this “do more with less” economic time in medicine. As a result, it appears existing hospitalists are quickly finding they’ve hit the peak speed of their clinical-care gerbil wheels.

In a 1999 National Association of Inpatient Physicians (NAIP) survey, 25% of hospitalists were at risk for burnout, and 13% were in fact burned out. While these burnout rates were significantly lower than those documented in similar surveys of intensivists and emergency medicine physicians at the time, others suggested that his rate could increase as the field matured.

News flash: At least at some hospitals, it looks like we’re there.

References:
Robert M. Wachter, MD; Lee Goldman, MD, MPH
The Hospitalist Movement 5 Years Later. JAMA. 2002;287:487-494.

Hoff TH, Whitcomb WF, Williams K, Nelson JR, Cheesman RA. Characteristics and work experiences of hospitalists in the United States. Arch Intern Med. 2001 Mar 26;161(6):851-8.

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Wes*


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Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

***

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