Sarah Jones was an anomaly in contemporary healthcare. Despite shifting alliances between physicians, hospitals, and insurance companies, she had been under the care of the same physician for over 20 years. Over this time, patient and physician had gotten to know each other well and had developed a fine relationship. Mrs. Jones had always assumed that, should she ever need to be admitted to the hospital, this relationship would pay big dividends, ensuring that her medical decision making would be based on long acquaintance and strong mutual understanding.
When the dreaded day came that she finally needed inpatient care, however, her hopes were dashed. Her physician explained to her that he no longer sees hospitalized patients. Instead she would be under the care of a team of physicians known as hospitalists. When she arrived, the hospitalist on duty introduced herself and told her that she would be the physician responsible for her care, while colleagues would be responsible during off hours. Unlike her regular physician, who would have been on hand only once or perhaps twice per day, the hospitalists would always be in house and ready to address her needs.
Mrs. Jones was surprised and disappointed to discover that her primary physician would not be involved in her hospital care. She had always assumed that she would be able to rely on their longstanding relationship for counsel and support. She imagined that if she were facing some really important decision, such as whether or not to proceed with a risky operation or how to manage her own end-of-life care, it would make a huge difference to know that she could count on a physician she knew well. Instead her hospital-based physician was a complete stranger.
Mrs. Jones’ experience is far from unique. In the past 15 years or so, medicine has seen the birth of hospitalists, a new breed of physicians who care only for hospitalized patients. There are now over 30,000 hospitalists in the US. From a patient’s point of view, such physicians offer a number of advantages. In many hospitals, a specialist in hospital medicine is always on duty, day or night. Moreover, because such physicians work only in the hospital, they are often more familiar with the hospital’s standard procedures, information systems, and personnel.
It is not difficult to see why hospital medicine might be so attractive to young physicians. For one thing, it provides them with a high degree of control over their working hours. They come on and off shift at regular times, and do not bear patient care responsibilities outside these hours. In addition, they are usually employed by the hospital, which means that they do not need to attend to a host of practice management issues that self-employed physicians confront. They can also focus on acute-care, in-hospital medicine, avoiding the challenges associated with long-term care of chronic-disease patients.
Some non-hospitalist physicians also find the rise of hospital medicine attractive. They do not need to travel to one or more hospitals each day to see patients, which takes considerable time and generates little revenue. They do not need to work so hard at staying abreast of changes in hospital procedures and technologies, which often vary from institution to institution, as do requirements for acquiring and maintaining hospital medical staff privileges. And finally, they can focus their energies on outpatient care, avoiding the more acutely life-threatening and complex situations associated with hospitalization.