COVID Experience Underscores 'Vital' Role of Hospital Medicine

Thomas R. Collins

May 11, 2021

While the COVID-19 pandemic has generated anxiety and confusion in medicine, one thing should bring a sense of clarity to hospitalists: They're needed now more than ever.

Larry Wellikson, MD, MHM, the former, longtime CEO of the Society of Hospital Medicine, in a May 6 keynote speech at SHM Converge, the annual conference of the Society of Hospital Medicine, said the COVID-19 era has underscored the singular importance of the specialty.

Dr Larry Wellikson

"I think one thing that this recent pandemic has emphasized is just how important and vital hospitalists are to the United States' health care system," Wellikson said. "The response to the acute care needs in this pandemic would have been impossible in the health care system that existed before hospitalists. And so this is something that we should understand and appreciate."

The "upheaval" experienced in hospital medicine continues a trend of change that will go on, both in the corporate health care landscape and in the role that hospitalists play in providing care, he said. Insurers have been merging and looking to consolidate. Hospital medicine companies have been merging, and "newfangled bedfellows" have been a trend, such as CVS stepping beyond its pharmacy role into an expanded health care role, Cigna buying Express Scripts, and an Amazon-Berkshire Hathaway-J.P. Morgan health care partnership that ultimately did not pan out, although that hasn't ended Amazon's presence in health care.

"You may not realize it, but Amazon is currently one of the largest hospital supply-chain companies," Wellikson said. "They're attempting to become a major pharmacy benefits manager and will only further enter into health care and into our personal and professional lives."

New models of care point to the way of the future, he said. Mount Sinai's continuing success with its Hospital at Home program — which involves an acute care nurse and team assigned to a patient in the home — introduces a concept that will be adopted more broadly, because of its cost savings and good outcomes, he said. Mergers of hospital systems, leading to excess hospital capacity, has given rise to what he calls "ED-plus," or using formerly full-service hospitals as more focused centers – providing emergency, obstetrician, cardiology, x-ray, or orthopedics care, or whatever is needed in a given community.

An increasing focus on population health rather than procedures plays into the strengths of hospitalists, Wellikson said, and the need for their skills will continue to deepen.

When changes in reimbursement began about 4 years ago, specialties such as cardiology entered into new contracts with hospitals, but the facilities began to notice that many of the services — such as initial heart failure and chest pain management — can be provided by hospitalists.

"They're signing fewer cardiologists and needing therefore to hire more hospitalists," he said.

To keep readmissions low and subsequent costs down, hospitalists will continue to handle the first few postdischarge visits with patients, he said. This is crucial in bundled payment systems.

"Most of the savings in those systems comes from being very efficient in the initial postdischarge portion of people's care," Wellikson said.

At the same time, hospitalists are not in "unlimited supply."

"I think every hospital medicine group should be assessing and working on improving their clinicians' well-being," he said. "We need to ration somewhat, so we're deploying hospitalists for the things that only we can do." He predicted that hospitalists will be required to work in the electronic medical record less frequently, with this task handled by others.

 Wellikson also called on the specialty to continue to expand its racial and ethnic diversity so that it reflects the patient population it serves.

"We're looking to create pathways to leadership for everyone and not just a tokenism moving forward," he said.

The basic strengths of hospital medicine — its flexibility, professional culture, and youth — leave it well prepared for all of these changes, he said.

"There is a bright future and hospitalists are right in the middle of this – we're not going to be marginalized or on the periphery," Wellikson said. "If I had one message for all of you, I would say be relevant and add value and you will not only survive, but thrive."

RIV Winners Announced

The winners of the 2021 RIV competition were also announced at the May 6 general session of Converge. There were two winners in each of the three categories, as follows:

Research
Overall: "Suboptimal Communication During Inter-Hospital Transfer," Stephanie Mueller, MD, MPH, SFHM

Trainee: "Mentorship in Pediatric Hospital Medicine: A Survey of Division Directors," Brandon Palmer, MD

Innovations
Overall: "Leveraging Artificial Intelligence for a Team-Based Approach to Advance Care Planning," Ron Li, MD

Trainee: "A Trainee-Designed Initiative Reshapes Communication for Hospital Medicine Patients During COVID-19," Smitha Ganeshan, MD, MBA

Clinical Vignettes
Adults: "Holy Spontaneous Heparin-Induced Thrombocytopenia," Min Hwang

Pediatrics: "The Great Pretender: A Tale of Two Systems," Shivani Desai, MD

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

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