Pediatric Hospitalists Convene Virtually to Discuss PHM Designation

Larry Beresford

July 09, 2020

A recent teleconference brought together an ad hoc panel of pediatric hospitalists, with more than 100 diverse voices discussing whether there ought to be an additional professional recognition or designation for the subspecialty, apart from the new pediatric hospital medicine (PHM) board certification that was launched in 2019.

The heterogeneity of PHM was on display during the discussion, as participants included university-based pediatric hospitalists and those from community hospitals, physicians trained in combined medicine and pediatrics or in family medicine, doctors who completed a general pediatric residency before going straight into PHM, niche practitioners such as newborn hospitalists, trainees, and a small but growing number of graduates of PHM fellowship programs. There are 61 PHM fellowships, and these programs graduate approximately 70 new fellows per year.

Although a route to some kind of professional designation for PHM — separate from board certification — was the centerpiece of the conference call, there is no proposal actively under consideration for developing such a designation, said Weijen W. Chang, MD, FAAP, SFHM, chief of pediatric hospital medicine at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., and associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts–Baystate Campus.

Who might develop such a proposal? "The hope is that the three major professional societies involved in pediatric hospital medicine — the Society of Hospital Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Academic Pediatric Association — would jointly develop such a designation," Dr. Chang said. However, it is not clear whether the three societies could agree on this. An online survey of 551 pediatric hospitalists, shared during the conference call, found that the majority would like to see some kind of alternate designation.

The Reality of the Boards

The pediatric subspecialty of PHM was recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties in 2015 following a petition by a group of PHM leaders seeking a way to credential their unique skill set. The first PHM board certification exam was offered by the American Board of Pediatrics on Nov. 12, 2019, with 1,491 hospitalists sitting for the exam and 84% passing. An estimated 4,000 pediatric hospitalists currently work in the field.

Certification as a subspecialty typically requires completing a fellowship, but new subspecialties often offer a "practice pathway" allowing those who already have experience working in the field to sit for the exam. A PHM practice pathway, and a combined fellowship and experience option for those whose fellowship training was less than 2 years, was offered for last year's exam and will be offered again in 2021 and 2023. After that, board certification will only be available to graduates of recognized fellowships.

But concerns began to emerge last summer in advance of ABM's initial PHM board exam, when some applicants were told that they weren't eligible to sit for it, said H. Barrett Fromme, MD, associate dean for faculty development in medical education and section chief for pediatric hospital medicine at the University of Chicago. She also chairs the section of hospital medicine for the AAP.

Concerns including unintended gender bias against women, such as those hospitalists whose training is interrupted for maternity leave, were raised in a petition to ABP. The board promptly responded that gender bias was not supported by the facts, although its response did not account for selection bias in the data. But the ABP removed its practice interruption criteria. 1,2

There are various reasons why a pediatric hospitalist might not be able or willing to pursue a 2-year fellowship or otherwise qualify for certification, Dr. Fromme said, including time and cost. For some, the practice pathway's requirements, including a minimum number of hours worked in pediatrics in the previous 4 years, may be impossible to meet. Pediatric hospitalists boarded in family medicine are not eligible.

For hospitalists who can't achieve board certification, what might that mean in terms of their future salary, employment opportunities, reimbursement, other career goals? Might they find themselves unable to qualify for PHM jobs at some university-based medical centers? The answers are not yet known.

What Might Self-Designation Look Like?

PHM is distinct from adult hospital medicine by virtue of its designation as a board-certified subspecialty. But it can look to the broader HM field for examples of designations that bestow a kind of professional recognition, Dr. Chang said. These include SHM's merit-based Fellow in Hospital Medicine program and the American Board of Medical Specialties' Focused Practice in Hospital Medicine, a pathway for board recertification in internal medicine and family medicine, he said.

But PHM self-designation is not necessarily a pathway to hospital privileges. "If we build it, will they come? If they come, will it mean anything to them? That's the million-dollar question," Dr. Chang said.

Hospitalists need to appreciate that this issue is important to all three PHM professional societies, SHM, AAP, and APA, Dr. Fromme said. "We are concerned about how to support all of our members — certified, noncertified, nonphysician. Alternate designation is one idea, but we need time to understand it. We need a lot more conversations and a lot of people thinking about it."

Dr. Fromme is part of the Council on Pediatric Hospital Medicine, a small circle of leaders of PHM interest groups within the three professional associations. It meets quarterly and will be reviewing the results of the conference call.

"I personally think we don't understand the scope of the problem or the needs of pediatric hospitalists who are not able to sit for boards or pursue a fellowship," she said. "We have empathy and concern for our colleagues who can't take the boards. We don't want them to feel excluded, and that includes advanced practice nurses and residents. But does an alternative designation actually provide what people think it provides?"

There are other ways to demonstrate that professionals are engaged with and serious about developing their practice. If they are looking to better themselves at quality improvement, leadership, education, and other elements of PHM practice, the associations can endeavor to provide more educational opportunities, Dr. Fromme said. "But if it's about how they look as a candidate for hire, relative to board-certified candidates, that's a different beast, and we need to think about what can help them the most."

Larry Beresford is an Oakland, Calif.-based freelance medical journalist with a breadth of experience writing about the policy, financial, clinical, management and human aspects of hospice, palliative care, end-of-life care, death, and dying. Learn more about his work at www.larryberesford.com; follow him on Twitter @larryberesford.

This article originally appeared in The Hospitalist, an official publication of the Society of Hospital Medicine.

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