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Epidemiology Inpatient Practice Outpatient Practice

2022-23 Influenza Season Predictions

You would think that August would bring a lull in the work of U.S. influenza epidemiologists. But August is when we get some of the most important information that predicts what our winter flu season will look like. And the projections are a little scary this year.

The best predictors of North American influenza in our winter is Australian influenza during our summer. Normally, influenza season in Australia starts in April and runs through October, corresponding with winter in the Southern Hemisphere. What happens with influenza in Australia usually fairly closely matches what happens later in the year in the United States. Thus, by examining the epidemiological data from the Australian Department of Health’s Influenza Surveillance, we can predict when influenza cases will start to be seen, what age groups will be affected, what serotypes will be predominant, and what severity will occur here in the United States and Canada.

Recent U.S. influenza seasons

Over the past 3 influenza seasons, we have seen an inverse relationship between COVID cases and influenza. One of the primary reasons for fewer influenza cases when COVID cases increase is social distancing and mask-wearing to prevent COVID. It turns out that these measures help prevent COVID but they are even more effective to help prevent influenza. We can see that effect in the 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22 influenza seasons.

The graph above shows seven previous influenza seasons in the United States. The 2019-20 influenza season (green line) started off quite severe with sustained high numbers of cases from December through March. The onset of the COVID pandemic in the United States in March 2020 marked the closure of schools, work from home initiatives, and public masking. This coincided with a precipitous fall in influenza-like infections at the end of March.

The 2020-21 influenza season (pink line) was the mildest in recent history with only a small peak in cases of influenza-like infections in November and December. At this time, social distancing and masking were more ubiquitous and the COVID vaccines were not yet widely available. It was not until the summer of 2021 that influenza-like infections began to rise – this was a time when COVID vaccines were widely available and it was generally believed that the end of the COVID pandemic was in sight. Consequently, mask mandates were discontinued, children returned to schools, and workers returned to their workplaces. This created conditions that allowed influenza to have a summer rebound.

The 2021-22 season is in red with red triangles. It peaked in December, much earlier than usual. This coincides with the rise in case numbers of the Omicron variant of COVID that caused people to resume masking and social distancing in December. Once these measures to prevent the spread of COVID went back into effect in December 2021, the frequency of influenza-like infections fell.

The exceptional influenza season was the H1N1 outbreak in 2009-10 when cases began to increase in August and peaked in September and October. This represented an unusually early influenza season that caught physicians off-guard. Making matters worse, this particular H1N1 strain had not circulated for decades and was not predicted to appear that season with the result that it was not covered by that season’s flu shots. These factors together resulted in an unusually large number of cases and large numbers of deaths, particularly among younger people who had no natural immunity to H1N1.

What we are learning from Australia

When will influenza season start?

In the last several years, the influenza season in the U.S. has mirrored the influenza season in Australia that occurs earlier in the year. So, what is Australia telling us this year? First, we are likely to see influenza cases start to increase earlier than normal this season. The graph below shows the last several seasons of positive influenza testing in Australia.

The current influenza season is in red. It began much earlier than in past years and also peaked much earlier. Cases began to rise in late April which corresponds to late October in the Northern Hemisphere. Cases peaked in late May in Australia which corresponds to late November in the U.S. By late July, the Australian influenza season was pretty much over – this would correspond to late January in the United States and Canada. So based on these data, we should expect to see influenza cases start to increase in October 2022 with peak numbers in November and December 2022.

How severe will influenza be this year?

Hospitalization data from Australia predicts that this will be an average year with respect to influenza severity. The graph below shows the number of influenza hospitalizations in Australia over the past several seasons. The current season is in red with hospitalizations mimicking the case number graph above. Hospitalizations began to increase in April and were back to baseline by late July. 

Based on this data, in the United States, we should expect influenza-related emergency department visits and hospitalizations to peak in November and December 2022.

What ages will be most affected?

A unique finding during the current Australian influenza season has been the propensity to affect children. The graph below shows the number of laboratory-confirmed influenza cases by age.

The largest case rates have been in people under age 20. This would predict that U.S. pediatricians will be seeing more influenza than U.S. internists this season.

Will the influenza vaccine cover it?

The vast majority of cases of influenza in Australia were influenza A with unusually few cases of influenza B as shown in the graph below.

The seasonal influenza vaccines in Australia this year included the following serotypes:

Egg-based quadrivalent influenza vaccines:

  1. A/Victoria/2570/2019 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus;
  2. A/Darwin/9/2021 (H3N2)-like virus;
  3. B/Austria/1359417/2021-like (B/Victoria lineage) virus; and
  4. B/Phuket/3073/2013-like (B/Yamagata lineage) virus.

Cell-based quadrivalent influenza vaccines:

  1. A/Wisconsin/588/2019 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus;
  2. A/Darwin/6/2021 (H3N2)-like virus;
  3. B/Austria/1359417/2021 (B/Victoria lineage)-like virus; and
  4. B/Phuket/3073/2013 (B/Yamagata lineage)-like virus.

Although it is still too early to be confident of Australian vaccine effectiveness, we can look at whether the strains seen during the flu season corresponded to the strains covered by the influenza vaccines. In all, 97.4% of influenza A (H1N1) isolates were antigenically similar to the vaccine components. 93.2% of influenza A (H3N2) isolates were antigenically similar to the corresponding vaccine components. And all of the influenza B isolates were similar to the corresponding vaccine components. The U.S. quadrivalent influenza vaccine for the 2022-23 season has identical components to the egg-based quadrivalent influenza vaccine used in Australia. Therefore, it is likely that this season’s flu shots will cover the strains of influenza that we are likely to see in North America.

What we should do in the U.S.

Based on the Australian experience, there are several steps that we should take to prepare ourselves for the 2022-23 influenza season:

  1. Start vaccinating early. It takes about 2 weeks for immunity to develop after a flu shot. Therefore, we should insure that most Americans get vaccinated in September this year if case numbers begin to rise in October as anticipated. If cases peak in late November, as expected, then people who wait until December or January to get vaccinated will have waited too long.
  2. Target kids for vaccination. With children being disproportionately affected by influenza in Australia, it is likely that we will see the same trend in the U.S., particularly as schools return to in-person classes.
  3. Prepare for a surge of hospitalizations in November and December. Normally, this is a low-census period for medical admissions in American hospitals. It is also a time when many people get elective surgeries over the winter holidays and before the end of the calendar year to take advantage of annual insurance deductibles. If the early influenza peak occurs as expected, we may need to institute routine pre-op influenza testing for elective surgeries much as was done with COVID testing during the worst of the COVID pandemic.
  4. Anticipate the effect of Thanksgiving travel. Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are times when many Americans travel to be with family. The Australian influenza season predicts that U.S. influenza cases may be peaking around Thanksgiving. This could result in holiday travel accelerating influenza spread this year.

No one can predict the influenza season with 100% accuracy. But if historical trends follow, then the U.S. will likely experience a similar season as Australia. Given that most Americans are starting to relax as the COVID-19 case numbers fall, we could be especially vulnerable to influenza this year, particularly if it comes early and preferentially affects children as expected.

August 10, 2022

Categories
Epidemiology Inpatient Practice Outpatient Practice

Preparing For Monkeypox

Monkeypox is spreading rapidly across the United States. There are steps that every hospital and every medical practice need to take now to protect patients and healthcare workers. As of yesterday, there were 6,326 known cases and undoubtedly considerably more that have gone undiagnosed. Infected patients will be presenting to your hospital, office practice, and emergency department in the next few weeks.

Where did monkeypox come from?

Monkeypox is a type of orthopoxvirus that is related to smallpox. It was first found in monkeys in a Danish research lab in 1958. The virus is not unique to monkeys, however, and has since been found in various mammalian species in Western Africa. Humans have sporadically become infected after contact with infected animals. Although most human cases have been reported in Africa, there have been occasional clusters of cases in other countries over the past 20 years.

One of the most notable clusters occurred in the United States in 2003 when 47 Americans became infected with monkeypox that originated from an infected giant Gambian rat that had been imported from West Africa for sale as an exotic pet. The rat then infected a group of captive prairie dogs that were also sold. Of the 47 cases, all but one person acquired monkeypox directly from an infected animal. In only one case was there human-to-human transmission (from a child to mother).

In July 2021, a traveler from Nigeria was diagnosed with monkeypox in Texas. In November 2021, a second travel-related case was diagnosed in Maryland. The current outbreak began on May 7 2022 when a travel-related case was diagnosed in the United Kingdom. Later that month, cases were diagnosed in Massachusetts and New York. Since that time, the number of cases has been growing exponentially. Because of lack of familiarity with the disease and difficulty in obtaining diagnostic tests, it is likely that most cases initially went undiagnosed and that the true number of U.S. cases is much higher.

How is it spread?

Because the initial cases were reported in gay men, there is a misconception that monkeypox is a sexually-transmitted disease, like syphilis or HIV. It is not. Monkeypox is primarily spread by skin-to-skin contact, similar to MRSA. Thus, the initial cases occurred in gay men not because they had sex with other men but because they had close skin contact with infected men. Although the virus can also be spread by respiratory secretions, it is not as contagious as other respiratory viruses, such as COVID. Therefore, it requires closer and/or more prolonged exposure for airborne transmission. However, because it can be spread by both contact and airborne routes, both contact and airborne isolation is recommended for inpatients. Other points to know about monkeypox transmissibility:

  • It can be transmitted to and from pets
  • Bed linens, clothing, eating utensils, and drinking glasses can be infectious
  • Infected persons remain contagious until scabs have all crusted over and a layer of new skin has developed
  • Usual hospital disinfectants can eliminate the virus
  • The average incubation period is 7 days and persons can be contagious during the incubation period

Signs, symptoms, and diagnosis

As of today, most cases have been in men who have sex with men. However, since monkeypox virus is spread by skin contact (rather than sexual contact), the demographic of infected people is expected to rapidly change in the next few weeks. A person does not have to be gay or to even have sex with another person to become infected. Common signs and symptoms reported in a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine include:

  • Rash – 95% (with 64% having <10 lesions)
    • Anogenital – 73%
    • Trunk or limbs – 55%
    • Face – 25%
    • Palms or soles – 10%
  • Fever – 62%
  • Lethargy – 41%
  • Myalgia – 31%
  • Headache – 27%
  • Pharyngitis – 21%
  • Lymphadenopathy – 56%

Because 98% of the 528 patients reported in this article were either gay or bisexual men, the incidence of anogenital lesions may be higher than in other patients. The rash is most frequently described as vesiculpustular (53%) but can present as a macular rash (4%), multiple ulcers (19%), or single ulcer (11%). Additional photos of the rash can be found on the CDC website.

Image: UK PHS

The diagnosis is made using swabs of skin lesions – preferably 2 swabs, each from a different lesion. Testing is done by orthopoxviral PCR and results can be available in 2-3 days. Specimen handling procedures can vary from lab to lab so be sure to follow specific instructions from the lab that the sample will be sent to. Until recently, testing was only available through the CDC and results could take 1-2 weeks. Now, testing is available through local health departments as well as several commercial labs making it possible to submit specimens as a regular send-out test from U.S. hospitals. Serology testing is also available through the CDC but the turn around time is 14 days.

Treatment

In cases reported during this outbreak, the mortality rate is low and in most people, the disease is self-limited and of mild-moderate severity. Consequently, to date, only a minority of patients receive anti-viral treatment (5% in the New England Journal of Medicine study). Certain patients are at higher risk of severe disease and these patients should be targeted for treatment:

  1. Those with severe disease (hemorrhagic disease, confluent lesions, sepsis, encephalitis, or other conditions requiring hospitalization)
  2. Immunocompromised persons
  3. Children (particularly those < 8 years old)
  4. Persons with exfoliative skin disorders (atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, etc.)
  5. Pregnant or breast-feeding women
  6. People with monkeypox complications (secondary bacterial skin infection; severe gastroenteritis; bronchopneumonia; etc.)
  7. Involvement of anatomic areas at risk of permanent injury (eyes, mouth, anus, genitalia, etc.)

The treatment of choice is tecovirimat (TPOXX). This drug is currently only available through the Strategic National Stockpile. Physicians have to contact either their state health department or the CDC (770-488-7100 or email at Poxvirus@cdc.gov). The dose is 600 mg PO BID x 14 days given within 30 minutes after a full meal of moderate/high fat. Drug side effects can include headache and nausea. TPOXX may reduce blood levels of midazolam and may increase levels of repaglinide.

Other treatments that may be effective but have less scientific data to support their use include intravenous Vaccinia immune globulin, cidofovir, and brincidofovir.

Vaccination

There are two vaccines available that are effective against monkeypox.Both of these are live virus vaccines (unlike most routine vaccines such as COVID vaccines or flu shots). The JYNNEOS vaccine contains a live non-replicating virus. The ACAM200 vaccine contains a live replicating virus.

JYNNEOS is given as 2 injections with the second dose given 4 weeks after the first dose. Full immune response develops 2 weeks after the second dose. The most common side effects are fatigue, headache, and myalgias. Unlike ACAM200, the JYNNEOS vaccine is not contraindicated in immunocompromised persons, pregnancy, or HIV infection.

The ACAM200 vaccine contains a live replicating Vaccinia virus that is given as a single dose. Because ACAM200 contains a replicating virus, it is contraindicated in immunocompromised persons, HIV infection (regardless of immune status), pregnancy, persons with heart disease, children < 1 year old, persons with eye conditions requiring topical steroids, and persons with a history of exfoliative skin disorders (eczema, atopic dermatitis, etc.). Although most side effects of ACAM200 are mild, 1 out of every 175 persons receiving it develop myocarditis or pericarditis. It takes 4 weeks for maximal immune development after vaccination.

Both vaccines are available from the Strategic National Stockpile. Because of limited supply (particularly of the JYNNEOS vaccine), widespread vaccination of the public and of most healthcare workers is not currently advised. Currently, the CDC only recommends pre-exposure prophylaxis vaccination for people at very high-risk of exposure (primarily laboratory workers performing diagnostic testing for monkeypox). The CDC anticipates expanding the indications for pre-exposure prophylaxis vaccination to broader populations as supplies of the vaccine increase in the future.

Most monkeypox vaccines are currently being given for post-exposure prophylaxis. When given within 4 days of exposure, vaccination can prevent the disease and when given between 4-14 days after exposure, vaccination can reduce the severity of monkeypox infection. Persons who should be prioritized for vaccination include:

  • Known contacts who are identified by public health via case investigation, contact tracing, and risk exposure assessments
  • Persons with a sexual partner in the past 14 days who was diagnosed with monkeypox
  • Persons who have had multiple sexual partners in the past 14 days in a jurisdiction with known monkeypox
  • Healthcare workers with a high risk exposure such as:
    • Unprotected contact with skin, lesions, or bodily fluids of a patient with monkeypox
    • Aerosol-generating procedures without N-95 mask and eye protection

Healthcare workers with an intermediate risk exposure should be offered post-exposure vaccination on a case-by-case basis and after discussion of the risks and benefits with the exposed healthcare worker. Intermediate risk exposures include: (1) being within 6 ft of an infected unmasked patient for more than 3 hours when the healthcare worker was not wearing a mask and (2) contact with patient’s clothing, skin lesions, or soiled linens while wearing gloves but not wearing a gown.

Healthcare workers with a low risk exposure generally do not require post-exposure vaccination. Low risk exposures include: (1) entering an infected patient’s room without wearing eye protection, (2) being in a room with an infected patient while wearing gown, gloves, eye protection and at least a surgical mask or (3) being within 6 feet of an unmasked patient for less than 3 hours without wearing at minimum, a surgical mask. Additional information about managing exposed healthcare workers can be found on the CDC website.

Isolation recommendations for infected outpatients

The vast majority of people infected with monkeypox can be treated as an outpatient. In order to control the spread of monkeypox in the community, it is essential that infected persons adhere to proper isolation procedures at home for the duration of infectivity. Infected persons remain contagious for 2-4 weeks. Isolation can be discontinued when until all symptoms have resolved, including full healing of the rash with formation of a fresh layer of skin in areas of vesicles and ulcers. Isolation practices include:

  • Remain in the home with no contact with other people
  • Avoid close physical contact, including sexual and/or close intimate contact, with other people.
  • Avoid sharing utensils or cups. Items should be cleaned and disinfected before use by others.
  • Do not share items that will be worn or handled with other people or animals.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, especially after direct contact with the rash.
  • Avoid contact with pets
  • Launder and disinfect items that have been worn or handled and that have been touched by a lesion
  • Do not dry dust or sweep as this may spread the virus
  • Do not wear contact lenses (because of risk of spreading the virus to the eyes)
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces with an Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectant. If other household members are responsible for cleaning, they should wear a medical mask and disposable gloves, at a minimum
  • If the infected person must leave home for medical care or for an emergency, cover the lesions, wear a well-fitting mask, and avoid public transportation

Infection control in the outpatient office

Although not as contagious as COVID, there is still a risk of an outpatient with monkeypox infecting other patients or healthcare workers. All employees of outpatient medical practices need to be familiar with monkeypox infection control practices to minimize the risk of spreading the infection. Specific measures include:

  • Utilize telemedicine for patients known or suspected to have monkeypox
  • If using pre-registration procedures in advance of patients arrival to the office, include questions about monkeypox signs and symptoms
  • Place patients with known or suspected infection in a private exam room with the door closed. These patients should be escorted from the building entrance directly to the exam room and should not wait in a waiting area
  • Have patients with known or suspected infection wear a surgical face mask with areas of skin rash covered
  • Healthcare workers entering an exam room of a patient with known or suspected infection should wear a disposable gown, gloves, eye protection, and an N-95 mask
  • Use disposable paper exam table drapes and patient gowns. Dispose of these materials using medical waste trash bags and do not shake out gowns or drapes
  • When the patient leaves, sanitize the room surfaces. Most standard hospital disinfectants will suffice. A list of cleaning products can be found on the Environmental Protection Agency website.

Infection control in the hospital

Only a small minority of patients will require admission to the hospital. Some of the indications for admission include pain management (such as severe anorectal pain), soft-tissue superinfection, pharyngitis limiting oral intake, eye lesions, acute kidney injury, myocarditis, and public health infection-control purposes. Infection control measures for hospitalized patients include:

  • Place patients with known or suspected infection in a private room with private bathroom and with the hallway door closed (negative airflow is not required)
  • Transport and movement of the patient outside of the room should be limited to medically essential purposes
  • When patients must be transported outside of their room, they should wear a medical mask and have any exposed skin lesions covered with a sheet or gown
  • Healthcare workers should wear a disposable gown, gloves, eye protection, and an N-95 mask
  • If aerosol-generating procedures are to be performed (e.g., intubation or bronchoscopy), use an airborne isolation room
  • Environmental services such as dry dusting, sweeping, or vacuuming should be avoided in rooms housing infected patients
  • Disposables such as paper towels should be disposed of using medical waste trash bags
  • Use surface cleaning products that are believed to be effective for emerging viral pathogens  (listed on the Environmental Protection Agency website)
  • Do not shake soiled linen, towels, and gowns. Soiled items should be enclosed in a proper laundry bag for transport to the laundry and staff handling laundry from infected patients should wear proper personal protective equipment as recommended by the CDC
  • Visitors should be limited to those essential for the patient’s care and wellbeing

Don’t think of monkeypox as a sexually-transmitted disease

Because the current outbreak has so far primarily affected men who have sex with men, monkeypox has developed a mistaken stigmata of being a sexually transmitted disease. It is important that we educate our patients and our co-workers that it is not necessary to have sex with someone to become infected with monkeypox. Measures that prevent spread of HIV and syphilis will not work with monkeypox. Abstinence will not stop it. Condoms will not stop it.

One of our best weapons against monkeypox is education.

August 3, 2022

Categories
Inpatient Practice Outpatient Practice

When Patients Threaten Doctors

A few years ago, one of our physicians was threatened by a patient who said he was “…going to come after you with my gun” because she refused to prescribe opioid pain medications for him. She was very distraught and came to me looking for measures to keep her safe in the workplace. In the past week, there have been several homicides at American healthcare facilities that have caused me to think back to that doctor.

Doctors and nurses facing the wrath of angry patients and their families is nothing new. Thirty-five years ago, when I was a fellow in training, a woman sent our division a letter saying that she was going to come to the hospital to kill all of the pulmonary and critical care doctors with her automatic rifle because her husband had died in our ICU. I had never even met her or her husband. What is different today compared to 35 years ago is that weapons are much more easily available and America has increasingly developed a culture of gun violence.

In the latter half of the last century, the United States was embracing greater degrees of gun control. In 1967, then governor Ronald Reagan signed the California Mulford Act that prohibited the public carrying of loaded firearms without a permit; violations were subject to a felony. At the time of signing, Reagan famously said that there was “…no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons”. The Mulford Act was notably supported by the NRA, which at the time was an organization primarily focused on the recreational use of guns and on gun safety. In 1993, the Brady Bill required mandatory criminal background checks on anyone purchasing firearms. In 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act banned the sale of assault rifles in the U.S.; the law had a 10-year limitation and expired in 2004. However, over the last 15 years, due largely to lobbying by special interest groups that promote gun availability, weapon laws have been rolled back. Coincident with this has been an increase in gun deaths, mass shootings, and healthcare shootings. Prior to the 1994 assault rifle ban, there were an average of 7.2 mass shooting deaths per year in the U.S. During the ban, that number dropped to 5.3 per year. After the ban expired in 2005, the average number of mass shooting deaths rose to 25 per year.

Shootings at healthcare settings

An FBI report found that there were 13,927 U.S. homicides in 2019. Firearms were by far the most commonly used weapons, accounting for 73% of the homicides.

Semi-automatic rifles (such as the AR-15 rifle) loom large in the public perception of homicides, largely due to their use in high-profile mass shootings. However, handguns are by far the most commonly used weapons in American homicides and account for 91% of firearm-related homicides. Firearms are also the method of choice for suicide in the United States and account for 53% of deaths by suicide per CDC data.

The CDC reports that in 2020, the firearm-related homicide rate was the highest that it has been in more than 25 years with a 35% increase compared to 2019. Overall, 45,222 Americans died from firearms in 2020. There have been a total of 18,882 gun-related deaths so far this year in the U.S. which puts us on a pace to exceed the 2020 number – and we have not even reached the busy summer homicide season. There have been 247 mass shootings so far this year and last Wednesday, there were fatal shootings at hospitals in Tulsa, OK and in Dayton, OH. Last Saturday, a physician and 2 nurses were stabbed in an emergency department in California. Our hospitals are becoming increasingly dangerous – The International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety reports that there was a 47% increase in hospital violent crimes in 2021 compared to 2020.

Violence against healthcare workers is incredibly common. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, healthcare providers account for 73% of all workplace injuries due to violence.  A hospital is one of the most dangerous places to work in the United States.

In a 2017 study of 346,343 emergency department visits, weapons were found in 3% of all ER visits with a total of 10,691 weapons confiscated at screening. Weapons were most likely to be found at hospitals that provide trauma and behavioral health services. Knives were the most common weapons found.

Hospital shootings are relatively rare but are usually widely publicized resulting in a greater awareness of shootings compared to other violent acts at hospitals. A 2012 study found that there were 154 shootings at healthcare facilities between 2000 and 2011 (12.8 per year). A more recent study found that there were 88 hospital shootings at healthcare facilities between 2012-2016 (17.6 per year). These data indicate that the annual number of hospital shootings is increasing.

What can we do to keep our healthcare workers safe?

There is no single best answer to this question because each healthcare setting is unique. Measures that are effective in an emergency department may not be practical nor effective in a free-standing medical office. Here are some of the steps that we took to improve healthcare worker safety in our own hospital and clinic building.

  1. Listen. When a doctor or nurse says that a patient has threatened them, take them seriously. Even if you believe that the threat is minimal, the person who has been threatened feels vulnerable and experiences trepidation. Take every patient threat seriously.
  2. Encourage reporting. Far too many violent incidents and threats in our nation’s hospitals go unreported. The most common reasons are (1) fear of retaliation, (2) lack of a clear reporting method, and (3) belief that nothing will be done. Reporting should be simple and easy. Ideally, there should be multiple options for reporting – by phone, email, on-line, in-person, etc.
  3. Engage hospital security. Keeping patients and employees safe is what they are trained to do. The security staff will have ideas about threat assessment and threat mitigation that you have not even thought about. For smaller, private medical practices that are not affiliated with a hospital, having on-site security personnel is not feasible. However, a healthcare security consulting company may be able to at least advise options for reducing the risk of staff being harmed.
  4. Video surveillance. Cameras can relatively easily be installed in parking areas, entryways, lobbies, and main corridors. Because the emergency department is the location of frequent violence against healthcare workers, extra cameras in the ER are generally warranted. In large hospitals, it is often optimal to have a member of the security staff continuously monitoring video feeds. Constant monitoring by a staff member may not be practical in a smaller outpatient office but video recordings can be very useful to substantiate threats if police become involved and signage announcing video surveillance can serve as a deterrent in some cases.
  5. Weapon-free zones. We have signs in our hospital and clinic building entrances stating that guns and other weapons are not permitted on premises. These signs are useful to make the hospital staff and general public feel safe but do very little to prevent a person from bringing a weapon inside. I was taught to recognize concealed guns carried by visitors to our ICU and have frequently identified people walking in with a handgun. In my outpatient pulmonary practice, I have unexpectedly encountered many holstered handguns during my auscultation of patients’ lungs from their backs. In Ohio, anyone can now carry a concealed handgun with no training or permit required and so I anticipate that even more people will ignore ‘No Guns Allowed’ signs.
  6. Limit door access. When our outpatient doctor was threatened after refusing to prescribe opioids, we put ID badge-access locks on the doors leading from the lobbies to the patient care areas. This required any patient or visitor to be escorted by an office staff member with badge access. We periodically receive threats from family members of ICU patients and so we have installed similar badge-access door locks to the ICU as well as other vulnerable locations such as the operating room and the emergency department. Creating this type of entrance barrier to an angry person with a weapon is one of the most effective preventive measures that we can take.
  7. Interior design. No only should staff have easy access to exits, but staff also need to know where all possible exits are. Mirrors and strategic positioning of reception desks can improve line-of-sight in corridors and lobbies. Interior spaces and parking areas should have adequate lighting. Enclosing reception desks can create a barrier to accessing adjacent patient care areas.
  8. Metal detectors. These are not practical at every hospital or outpatient office entrance. However, we do use metal detectors at our emergency department public entrance and the number of weapons that are found is astounding. This requires a security staff member to be stationed at the metal detector. It is not possible to use a metal detector at ambulance entrances to the emergency department so patients brought by ambulance must be manually searched or checked with a hand-held metal detector on arrival – this is particularly necessary for trauma and psychiatric patients arriving by ambulance since these patients are more likely to have weapons.
  9. Panic buttons. These are devices that can be placed in a physicians office or can be carried by the physician (or nurse) that send a signal directly to the security staff if the physician (or other healthcare worker) is confronted by a threatening person. We have frequently provided these to doctors who have received threats from patients, patient family members, or former employees. The won’t stop the first bullet from a gun but they might prevent the second bullet from being fired.
  10. Phone call code phrases. This is a simple measure that every hospital should utilize. Staff are taught that if there is person making a threat in their area, the staff call the security office and state the code words. In order to protect the safety of our own hospital’s staff, I won’t say what our code phrase is. But choose something that won’t be obvious to the general public such as “Please page Dr. G”. The code phrase then triggers security staff to immediately go to the location of the phone call.
  11. Run, Hide, Fight. Active shooter training should be available to every healthcare worker. The Ohio State University uses the Run, Hide, Fight procedure for students, faculty, and staff. We require Run, Hide, Fight training for some of our hospital employees and make the training optional for others, depending on the hospital location where they work. For an example of what the training involves, watch this short video created by the FBI.
  12. Safety training. In situations less emergent than active shooter situations, other tactics should be used. All staff should be trained to identify warning signs and escalating behaviors that can precede a violent assault. Training should also include de-escalation techniques, available alarms, behavior control methods, and location of safe areas. Free self-defense training is often seen as a valuable fringe benefit by healthcare workers.
  13. Involve the police. When a doctor receives a credible threat, contact the police. Be sure to save any evidence such as letters, emails, voicemails, or video recordings. Encourage staff to press criminal charges when appropriate. This may require financial support for legal assistance as well as paid time off for legal proceedings.
  14. First name ID badges. This is usually impractical for physicians who by necessity need ID badges stating their last names. But patients and visitors generally do not need to know the last names of nurses and other hospital employees. Instead of their ID badge reading “Carol Smith, RN”, consider having the ID badge simply read “Carol RN”. Identity concealment can be an important deterrent to a vindictive patient.
  15. Parking lot escorts. Any hospital employee who feels unsafe should have the option of being escorted by security staff from their car to the building and from the building to their car. Parking lots and parking garages are second only to the emergency department in numbers of violent assaults in hospitals.
  16. Provide counseling. A violent assault or the threat of violence is extraordinarily stressful for hospital staff. Unaddressed, this emotional stress can result in reduced employee performance, absenteeism, and employee resignation. Counseling should be available to staff through free employee assistance programs. Hospitals and large medical practices may be able to use internal resources such as social workers and mental health providers. Small medical practices may need to establish a relationship with private counselors.

People with weapons kill people

Gun control advocates often say “Guns kill people”. Gun rights advocates counter by saying “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. I think they are both wrong: people with weapons kill people. Guns just happen to be America’s weapon of choice. The United States has, by far, the highest gun-related homicide rate of all high-income countries. Our healthcare facilities are not immune to homicide and other forms of violence. Doctors will always be blamed by some people for their pain, for the outcome of their illness, or for the death of a family member. Our job as hospital leaders is to create a safe workplace so that our doctors can improve people’s lives without having to worry about losing their own.

June 8, 2022

Categories
Inpatient Practice

It’s Time To Rethink Hospitalist Work Schedules

No two hospitals have exactly the same approach to scheduling hospitalists. Early in the era of hospitalists, a 7-day on, 7-day off work schedule was most common, with hospitalists working a total of about 15 shifts per month, each of which was 12-hours. Schedulers liked this because it was simple. But the 7-on, 7-off work schedule can lead to physician burnout. So, what is the ideal schedule?

The best schedule is the one that results in optimal patient outcomes plus optimal physician job satisfaction, tempered with fiscal responsibility.

Summary Points:

  • The traditional 7-day on, 7-day off model is not always the best model
  • A successful scheduling model aligns the priorities of the hospital with the priorities of the hospitalists
  • Scheduling flexibility is crucial
  • Hospitalists’ schedule priorities change with age, experience, and family needs

Optimizing patient outcomes

Although many hospitalist variables can affect patient outcomes, two of the most important are inpatient continuity and inpatient workload. Inpatient continuity refers to how consistently a single physician manages a patient during that patient’s hospital stay. This generally equates to how many days a hospitalist works in a row. Inpatient workload refers to the number of patients a hospitalist manages per shift.

Inpatient Continuity 

In a 2020 study from JAMA Internal Medicine, the clinical outcomes of 114,777 patients were studied from 229 hospitals in Texas. 25% of the patients had low hospitalist continuity during their hospitalization, defined as hospitalists working 0 – 30% of their total working days with shifts of ≥ 7 days in a row. 25% of the patients had high hospitalist continuity during their hospitalization, defined as hospitalists working 67 – 100% of their total working days with shifts of ≥ 7 days in a row. The high continuity cohort had a lower average 30-day mortality rate, lower readmission rate, higher rate of discharge to home, and lower 30-day post-discharge costs. The authors’ overall conclusion was that “…patients receiving care from hospitalists who usually work several days in a row experience better outcomes and lower costs…”.

In many ways, these results are not surprising. Patient hand-offs are frequently sources inadequate communication. For hospitalists, there are 2 kinds of handoffs: (1) those that occur between the day shifts and night shift hospitalists and (2) those that occur between two sequential day shifts. The information impacting continuity of care is primarily in the second type of handoff whereas day-night shift handoffs are limited to new problems occurring with a patient during the night shift and with new nighttime admissions. The Joint Commission has identified hand-offs as major source of medical errors. More consecutive days on-duty equates to fewer handoffs.

I have only rarely worked shifts as a hospitalist. However, I have attended innumerable times on our hospital’s general internal medicine resident teaching services and on our medical intensive care unit service. On the first day of service, I would spend the bulk of my time just getting to know the patients’ histories and active medical problems. I never knew the patients who I picked up as well as those that I admitted and performed the initial history and physical exam myself. And I often kept those picked-up patients in the hospital longer so I could be sure that I had addressed all of their medical issues. Moreover, I would generally work longer hours on those first days of service because for me, every patient on the service was a new patient that required more time to become familiar with.

Patient satisfaction can also improve if inpatients see the same doctor every day. All too often, inpatients do not even know who their attending physician is. If the hospitalist caring for a patient changes every one or two days, then there is no opportunity to build a doctor-patient relationship and inpatient satisfaction scores will suffer.

Inpatient Workload 

When a hospitalist has to take care of too many patients, bad things happen. But what constitutes too many patients? There is not a single number because workload involves both the number of patients encounters per day and the complexity of the patient encounters. Taking care of 18 inpatients per day at one hospital may be easier than taking care of 12 inpatients per day at another hospital.

In a previous post, I discussed 19 variables that impact the ideal number of patients that a hospitalist should see per day. Those include:

      • Case mix index
      • Residents versus no residents
      • Admitting service versus consultative service
      • Presence or absence of advance practice providers
      • ICU versus general ward patients
      • Day shift versus night shift
      • Observation status versus regular inpatient status
      • Ease of documentation
      • Shared electronic medical record with primary care physicians
      • Non-clinical duties
      • Shift duration (hours)
      • Hospitalist experience
      • Patient geographical location within the hospital
      • Average length of stay
      • Inpatient census variability
      • RVU productivity
      • Quality of case management
      • Local hospitalist employment market
      • Patient demographics

A good rule of thumb is to start with a target inpatient census of 15 patients per hospitalist and then work up or down depending on your hospital’s unique mix of these 19 variables. So, if you have a very robust case management department, increase the number to 17 per day. Or if your hospitalists are mostly new residency program graduates, then drop the number down to 13.

Optimizing hospitalist job satisfaction

Physician burnout is real and when it comes to burnout, nothing is more combustable than an unhappy doctor. But a schedule that makes one hospitalist happy may make another hospitalist unhappy. At the risk of over-generalization, the age of the hospitalists can affect their schedule preferences:

  • The 30-year old hospitalists. Young hospitalists are fresh out of residency where they had been working 60-80 hours per week with 1-month service blocks and 4 days off per month. They are used to working long hours and working many days in a row. For these hospitalists, a 7-day on, 7-day off schedule with 12-hour shifts can seem like career heaven. From their vantage point, they have a vacation every other week. They have been doing night block rotations for the past 3 years and still owe a lot on their medical school loans so they do not object to doing night shifts, as long as they get paid a shift differential. They will likely need maternity and paternity leave.
  • The 40-year old hospitalists. They now have 10 years of hospitalist experience and with that experience, they have become very efficient. They can take care of more patients per day and still finish their daily work sooner than the 30-year old hospitalist. They begin feeling resentful when they are sitting around in the physician lounge at 4:00 pm reading the newspaper and waiting for their shift to end while their kids are playing in a little league game that they are missing. They want to be able to schedule their shifts around their family’s calendar.
  • The 50-year old hospitalists. With 20 years of hospital medicine behind them, they are highly efficient. They began working as hospitalists in the very beginning of the hospitalist movement and now are valuable as mentors for younger hospitalists. They feel that they have put in their time and do not want to do overnight shifts. They are taking on administrative roles in exchange for doing fewer shifts. Working 7 days in a row is increasingly tedious. They would often prefer to do more shifts per year in exchange for the shifts being shorter.
  • The 60-year old hospitalists. There are very few of these now but as the current hospitalists continue to age, they will be increasingly common in the future. They are close to retirement and are less interested in making major career changes at this point in their lives. Their children are now grown so as empty-nesters, they do not have the priority of getting home early or having weekends free. But they prefer lower acuity patients.

The main point is that different hospitalists have different priorities. Some hospitalist groups will develop their own work schedule culture and then hire new hospitalists who share those same priorities. These groups can have a fairly standardized schedule and keep everyone happy. Other hospitalist groups will have a more heterogenous set of hospitalist priorities and forcing hospitalists into shift schedules that do not match their priorities will result in unhappy hospitalists and a high turn-over rate. The bottom line is that it is essential that you know what your own hospitalists’ priorities are.

Fiscal responsibility

Hospitalists are expensive. The average hospitalist total compensation varies considerably by region and by who is doing the salary survey but the national average is about $290,000 for salary, bonuses, and incentives. If you add in other benefits (malpractice insurance, retirement, disability insurance, health insurance) as well as the cost of recruiting a new hospitalist (at least $30,000 in direct costs alone), the number rises considerably. It is virtually impossible for hospitalists to cover their entire costs from professional revenue alone and almost all hospitalists require hospital subsidization. This subsidy will vary from hospital to hospital but $200,000 per hospitalist is typical.

Because of the magnitude of this expense, hospital CEOs want value from their hospitalists. That means hitting the sweet spot of the hospitalists seeing as many patients per day while at the same time keeping the per-patient costs as low as possible and at the same time keeping the patient outcomes has high as possible and at the same time keeping hospitalist turnover as low as possible.

The relationship between these variables is complex. For example, the amount of subsidy that the hospital has to pay per hospitalist compared to the number of patients seen per day by the hospitalist is fairly linear (red line above). The more patients a hospitalist sees per day, the more professional revenue the hospitalist generates and therefore the less subsidy the hospital has to provide. On the other hand, the relationship between hospitalist case load and patient outcomes is exponential instead of linear (blue line above). Once a critical number of patients per day is exceeded, patient outcomes worsen and per patient hospital expenses increase. Having a hospitalist take care of one patient per day would result in the best outcomes but would be prohibitively expensive. On the other hand, having a hospitalist take care of 25 patients per day would cost the hospital very little in hospitalist subsidy but would result in devastatingly poor patient outcomes, longer length of stay, and frequent hospitalist turnover.

So, what is the best schedule?

By now, it should be clear that there is no one single best hospitalist schedule. The best schedule at any given hospital will depend on the unique needs of that hospital and the priorities of the individual hospitalists. But the underlying theme of scheduling success is flexibility. To understand how to incorporate flexibility into your hospitalists’ schedule, it is first necessary to understand the circadian rhythm of the hospitalist’s workday. A typical day would look something like this:

7 AM to 8 AM – chart review

8 AM to 10 AM – morning work rounds

10 AM to 11 AM – interdisciplinary rounds

11 AM to 1 PM – discharges

1 PM to 3 PM – write daily notes

3 PM to 6 PM – new admission work-ups

6 PM to 7 PM – chart review

7 PM to 12 midnight – evening admissions

12 midnight to 7 AM – emergency calls

In terms of the amount of work, hospitalists are generally busy from early morning to mid afternoon, have a lull until early evening when admissions start to increase, then have a bigger lull after midnight. Each hospital will have slightly different hospitalist needs by time of the day so it is important that you track your admissions by time of the day in order to optimize hospitalist schedules. A typical hospital’s requirements are as seen below:

There are several tactics that you can take to achieve the goals of optimizing hospitalist satisfaction and optimizing patient outcomes while being fiscally prudent:

  1. Know what your hospitalists want. Knowing what is valued by each party is the key to any successful negotiation. Survey your hospitalists to find out what their scheduling priorities are. Because those priorities will change as a hospitalist gets older and as their family life changes, get in the habit of re-assessing their individual priorities annually.
  2. Know your hospital’s hourly hospitalist needs. This  will require you to learn how long it takes the hospitalists to do work rounds, interdisciplinary rounds, and daily charting. You will need to know what time of day your patients are typically discharged and what your average admissions are by hour of the day.
  3. Incentivize continuity. Because it takes a hospitalist less time to care for a group of patients the more continuous days that hospitalist works, use that to your mutual advantages. For example, when working a 7-on and 7-off schedule, consider making the first 3 days of the 7-day block 12-hour shifts, the next 3 days of the block 10-hour shifts, and the last day of the block an 8-hour shift. Let the hospitalists take home calls from the nurses until the night shift hospitalist arrives.
  4. But you don’t need continuity at night. The night shift hospitalists are there for new admissions and patient care emergencies. They are not necessary for the regular continuity of care and it is not essential that they do consecutive days on-duty.
  5. Consider an observation unit. By definition, observation patients spend less than 2 midnights in the hospital. Their care is often more protocoled and with their short hospital stays, it is less necessary for daily continuity. Hospitalists covering observation units do not need to adhere to a consecutive 7-day on schedule to ensure optimal outcomes.
  6. Align shift duration with workload. If you find that the hospitalists are often done with their work at 3:00 PM, then create an option for them to leave the hospital at 3:00 but to carry their pager for nursing calls and do their evening chart review later from home. This may require designating one or more hospitalists to have the “long shift” to cover admissions and patient emergencies until the night shift hospitalist arrives.
  7. Use resident teaching services strategically. Residents learn the most when they do their own admissions and then follow those patients that they admitted. So, consider having the teaching services take the bulk of new admissions in the mornings and early afternoons. That frees up the hospitalists to get their daily rounds completed and get their discharges out earlier in the day so that they can then take admissions in the evening and night.
  8. Flexibility, flexibility, flexibility. If you ask hospitalists what the one thing is that they would like in their schedule, it is flexibility. Maybe they want a particular day off for their spouse’s birthday. Maybe they want to be able to get home in time to pick up their kids from school. Maybe they are planning a 2-week international vacation and want to do a 14-day work block to accrue 14 consecutive days off. A schedule that is too rigid will lead to dissatisfaction. Preserve the ability of the hospitalists to switch shifts for days off on short notice. Create a short shift/long shift schedule so the 40-year old hospitalists can pick-up their children from grade school. This may require some scheduling creativity, for example, requiring a hospitalist to do one long shift for every short shift, requiring an extra shift per month for every 2 short shifts, or paying less for a short shift than for a long shift.
  9. Be woman-friendly. Do not penalize maternity leave by requiring new mothers to make up the shifts that they were off during maternity leave. Once you know that one of your hospitalists will be out on maternity leave, if you won’t be able to cover her shifts internally then start looking for a locum tenens hospitalist for those months. New mothers may prefer doing more shorter shifts instead of fewer 12-hour shifts. Or they may want to come back part-time. Breast feeding hospitalists need extra time during the day to pump so be sure that there is backup coverage and/or give them fewer patients per shift. The majority of medical students are now women; in order to be competitive for the best hospitalists in the future, your hospital must be accommodating for pregnancy and new mothers.
  10. Consider a swing shift. In most hospitals, the majority of hospitalist admissions come from the emergency department. The number of ER admissions tends to be low in the early morning hours, shortly after midnight. The number of admissions starts to rise in late morning and then peaks in the evening. Having an extra hospitalist or advance practice provider to help with admissions between 5:00 PM and 11:00 PM can improve patient throughput. Alternatively, have the swing shift start at 3:00 PM to cover both admissions and emergency calls on short-shift hospitalist’s inpatients.
  11. Schedule holidays intelligently. Be equitable when assigning holidays. A policy of assigning the youngest hospitalists all of the major holidays can breed disgruntlement if those are the only hospitalists with young children at home. Don’t assign your Jewish hospitalist to be on-duty during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Don’t assign your Muslim hospitalist to be on-duty during Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Don’t assign your Christian hospitalist to be on-duty on Christmas and Easter. Different people prioritize New Year’s Day, MLK Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving differently so create a preference list each year allowing hospitalists to choose which of those holidays they want to be off-duty.
  12. Consider an advance practice provider. If your hospitalists strongly prefer fewer consecutive days on-duty, then an APP can bridge the continuity gap. A nurse practitioner or physician assistant who works on the same nursing unit Monday through Friday every week can allow for the improved outcomes that continuity brings. The APP results in the supervising hospitalist being able to cover more inpatients by freeing the hospitalist up from time-consuming data collection, note writing, and paperwork. Having a consistent APP permits the hospitalists to do fewer consecutive work days.
  13. Align incentives. The hospital is going to have to subsidize the hospitalists so use the subsidization as an opportunity to align what the hospital wants (optimal patient outcomes and low inpatient costs) with hospitalist bonuses and incentives. With respect to the hospitalist schedule, an example could be bonusing based on the number of times the day shift hospitalists do 7 consecutive days on-duty each year.
  14. Be willing to change. Just because you had a 7-on, 7-off schedule last year does not mean that you must have a 7-on, 7-off schedule next year. Don’t be committed to one schedule simply because that is the way that you have always done things. If 7 consecutive days on is too much, try 6. If 7 consecutive days off is too little, try 8. If your hospitalists are consistently done with their work at 4:00 PM, then change to 8-hour day shifts with a reduced staff 4-hour evening shift before the 12-hour night shift.

For many years, our hospital had two hospitalist groups – a private group that did mostly 7 days on, 7 days off with shifts that were 12 hours each and an academic group that did more shifts per year per hospitalist but many of the shifts were shorter than 12 hours. The two groups attracted different types of physicians with different priorities. The physicians in both groups were equally happy and the patient outcomes were similar. The lesson was that you do not have to do the same thing for everybody in order to achieve the same level of success.

May 19, 2022

Categories
Inpatient Practice Outpatient Practice Procedure Areas

Managing Pain In The Hospital

An important mission of the hospital is the relief of suffering and that includes relief of pain. Pain management programs are central to fulfilling this mission. The past decade has taught us that you cannot effectively manage pain with an opioid prescription alone. The combination of opioid addiction plus the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be lethal for many Americans. Last year, there were 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States, up by 28.5% from the 78,056 overdose deaths in the previous year. The vast majority of these deaths were caused by natural or synthetic opioids and for many of these people, their addiction started with a pain medication initially prescribed by a doctor.

In the 1990’s, “Pain as the 5th vital sign” was the mantra of pain management services with the implication that physicians were not prescribing enough opioids and that it was our moral duty to prescribe more. The consequence of this campaign was that many of our patients became opioid-dependent. When we realized this, the pendulum swung the other way, with state medical boards restricting the amount and duration of opioid prescriptions that doctors could order. As a result, the supply of prescription opioids fell dramatically and the opioid-dependent population turned to illegal opioids. Coincident with this, inexpensive synthetic fentanyl became readily available on our streets and many Americans died of unintentional overdose due to the unpredictable concentrations of fentanyl in purchased quantities of street drugs.

The good news, is that we have a number of great alternatives to opioid pain medications for both acute and chronic pain management. However, a high-functioning hospital needs to have  more than just one of these pain management services.

What is pain, anyhow?

Pain exists when our peripheral nerves let us know that a part of the body is being injured. This is a great defense mechanism to avoid bodily harm, for example, pain is how we know to pull our hand away when we touch a hot stove. But pain can become pathologic when those pain nerves keep firing even though there is no avoidable injury – for example, the patient with bone metastases from cancer, the patient hospitalized after multiple trauma, the patient with chronic arthritis, or the patient recovering from a knee replacement surgery. In those situations, the pain nerves just keep firing away and there is nothing that the person can do by themself to make those nerves stop.

But there is a lot more to the perception of pain than just signal from a peripheral nerve. There are pain amplifiers that can turn the volume of pain up. The most important of these are fear, anxiety, and depression. Often, the presence of one of these modifiers can convert tolerable pain into intolerable pain.

What pain management services does the hospital need?

Comprehensive pain management does not boil down to having a single pain management service. Hospitals need to have a spectrum of options for treating pain in order to do the most good for the most people. All too often, the physicians or advance practice providers who are proficient with one type of pain management option are not proficient with other options.

  1. Acute pain services. These are inpatient providers, frequently anesthesiologists, nurse anesthetists, pharmacists, and/or nurse practitioners. These providers are very good at managing temporary pain, particularly post-operative pain and trauma-related pain. They will have experience in managing pain pumps and in selecting opioid and non-opioid pain medications that are meant to be used for limited numbers of hours or days. A larger hospital can afford to maintain an acute pain service but the low patient volume at a smaller hospital may make an acute pain management service cost-prohibitive. In order to serve our smaller, urban hospital, we created an acute pain telemedicine consultation service with providers located at our larger, tertiary care hospital located on the other side of town.
  2. Pain and palliative care services. These are providers who may work in either inpatient or outpatient areas and typically focus more on chronic pain management. They are usually physicians who have completed a palliative medicine fellowship who lead a team that may include nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, and social workers. Cancer-related pain and sickle cell anemia-related pain are examples of their clinical focus. Although chronic opioid prescription may be a part of their practice, they will also typically address pain modifiers, such as fear and depression.
  3. Interventional pain services. These are physicians who have done fellowship training in interventional pain management and most commonly draw from anesthesiology, physical medicine & rehabilitation, and neurology. Their practice is generally outpatient and many include steroid injections, radiofrequency ablation, intrathecal pumps, sympathetic blocks, peripheral nerve stimulators, and spinal stimulators. They will often interface with outpatient therapies such as physical therapy, aqua therapy, and psychology. The procedures that they perform often require use of the operating room or an imaging area such as a cath lab or interventional radiology lab. Many of their procedures are done using moderate sedation but some may require general anesthesia.
  4. Sports medicine. These are family physicians, internists, or pediatricians who have done fellowship training in sports-related injuries and over-use injuries. Despite the name, sports medicine physicians treat many patients who are not athletes. They will often interface with physical therapists, athletic trainers, and orthopedic surgeons when directing specific treatments for injuries accompanied by pain.
  5. Complementary and alternative medicine. This includes a wide variety of services such as acupuncture, massage therapy, chiropractic treatments, yoga, and traditional Chinese medicine. Although physicians may be involved in alternative medicine, many of these providers are non-physicians. Many hospital medical directors take a jaded view of alternative medicine. However, these services can often de-amplify pain by reducing anxiety and fear. They can also provide a sense of control to patients with chronic pain that can make pain much more manageable. Regardless of what the hospital medical director may think, if the patient believes that these services work, then they can be beneficial.
  6. Inpatient physicians. Hospitalists, surgeons, and anesthesiologists are the first-line of pain management for most inpatients. However, the formal training that they get in pain management is highly variable. Clinical practice guidelines and treatment protocols can be very useful to ensure a hospital-wide standard of practice. Periodic continuing medical education events are also valuable. One of the most important roles of these physicians is to manage pain expectations. If patients are told that they are going to have post-operative pain before they actually have their surgery and they are told that their pain will be manageable with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and physical therapy, then those patients are less likely to require opioids post-operatively compared to patients who go into surgery unprepared to experience any pain after surgery.
  7. Outpatient physicians. Primary care physicians, surgeons, and emergency medicine physicians are the front-line of pain management for most outpatients. Once again, their formal training in pain management can be highly variable and so just as for inpatient physicians, clinical practice guidelines, treatment protocols, and periodic continuing medical education are usually necessary. Most state medical boards have state-specific rules and regulations regarding chronic opioid prescription and  it can be very difficult for the primary care physician to ensure that all of the monitoring and documentation requirements are met. A robust electronic medical record can help with this. But if there is a critical mass of patients receiving chronic opioid medications, an advanced practice provider dedicated to chronic, stable-dose opioid management can be cost-effective.

In addition to pain services that manage a spectrum of conditions, there are also disease-specific specialists needed to manage certain conditions. Migraine (often managed by neurologists) and fibromyalgia (often managed by rheumatologists) are two examples. Having a physician on the hospital medical staff who specializes in these conditions can help avoid primary care physicians ordering opioids out of frustration.

Match the patient with the pain service

Although there is frequently a lot of overlap between different types of pain services, to optimally meet the needs of the most patients, all seven of the above pain services need to be available – if not in each hospital, then at least somewhere in the community. No two patients are exactly alike when it comes to pain tolerance and pain perception. Treating fibromyalgia with chronic opioids just doesn’t work. Nor does bone metastasis pain with physical therapy. We should strive to match the patient’s type of pain with the right type of pain service.

Our natural tendency as humans is to use whatever tool we are familiar with to fix whatever problem we face (“When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). When it comes to pain management, be sure that your hospital has a full toolbox.

February 19, 2022

Categories
Emergency Department Inpatient Practice

What Do You Do When The Hospital Is Full?

The occupancy rate of a hospital is the percentage of available staffed beds that are currently occupied by patients. As the number of COVID cases surges this month, we are about to see our country’s hospitals more fully occupied than ever before.

The need to improve hospital financial efficiency has led many hospitals to try to keep their average occupancy as high as possible, often 90% or higher. But if the occupancy rate is too high, then inefficiencies arise that can be just as detrimental to hospital finances as when occupancy rates are too low. One danger of keeping the average occupancy rate too high is that the hospital cannot accommodate unexpected surges in admissions. This has been a significant problem for hospitals across the U.S. during the various case surges during the COVID-19 pandemic and will be even more so in the next few weeks.

What is occupancy? Most hospitals use the “midnight census” to track their occupancy rate. This is the number of patients in a bed at midnight each day. This metric works well for hotels since there is a defined check-out time in the morning and check-in time in the afternoon each day. However, this number can be misleading for hospitals because hotels, hospital admissions and discharges occur at continuously throughout the day and night with the result that the hospital census at noon is almost always higher than the census at midnight as morning admissions start to pile up while afternoon discharges are still occupying beds. As a consequence, a hospital may have 15% empty beds at midnight but have no empty beds at 2:00 PM. Therefore, the midnight census is useful from a financial standpoint but real-time census is more important from an operational standpoint.

It takes more than just a room with a bed… Not only do you have to have a physical place to put patients, but you have to have the nurses, doctors, pharmacists, and respiratory therapists to take care of them. During the COVID pandemic, at any given time, large numbers of these healthcare workers were unable to work due to having COVID themselves, having to isolate because of a COVID exposure, or having to stay home to take care of  child who was unable to attend school due to COVID. A single nurse can only safely take care of so many patients and if that number of patients is exceeded, then patient care can suffer. Moreover, nursing contracts and nursing units often place a limit on the number of patients a nurse can take care of and a limit on the number of hours per week a nurse can work. When the hospital lacks the personnel to care for patients, it has to “block-out” rooms from use.

Not all hospital beds are equal. Hospitals will try to group similar patients on a single nursing unit. This allows nurses to develop expertise in managing specific types of patients, for example, cardiac, pediatric, psychiatric, post-surgical, and maternity. This also creates better efficiency for the doctors so that, for example, a surgeon does not need to go to 7 different nursing units to round on his/her 7 post-op patients. But as nursing units become more and more specialized, it becomes less desirable to admit one kind patient to a different kind of unit. So, for example, having a lot of open beds in the addiction medicine ward does not really help you if you are trying to find a bed for a post-op neurosurgery patient and all of the surgical nursing units are full. Most hospitals will have a lot of “med-surg” units that can accommodate general medical patients or surgery patients.

What happens when there are no beds?

The need to accommodate the constant flow of admissions has resulted in hospitals putting a lot of resources into capacity management. Smaller hospitals often utilize a “nursing supervisor” who keeps up-to-date information on which patients are projected to be discharged and which patients are awaiting admission. Larger hospitals will utilize a admission control center staffed by multiple nurses whose sole responsibility is directing the flow of hospital admissions and patients being transferred from other hospitals; this is called “bed placement”. In most hospitals, the electronic medical record will facilitate this process by having dashboards that list open beds and beds occupied by patients who will be discharged later that day.

But what happens when all of the beds are full and there are more projected admissions than discharges for the rest of the day? That is when the hospital medical director generally gets involved. Here are the some of the available options:

  1. Expedite discharges. This is usually the first action taken and involves contacting all of the hospitalists and other attending physicians to ask them to hasten discharges. Most of the time, this only results in moving otherwise planned admissions up by a couple of hours but even that can help free up a few beds to help decompress admission bottlenecks. Simply having a discharge order does not ensure that an empty bed will be created, however. Nursing and case management can also expedite discharges by arranging earlier transportation home, by locating nursing homes with available beds, and by using “discharge suites” where discharged patents can wait for their rides.
  2. Focus on long-length-of-stay patients. Every hospital has a group of inpatients that have been admitted for many weeks or months. Often, these are patients who are difficult to get placed in nursing homes because they are uninsured or because they have behavioral problems. By creating  multidisciplinary workgroup to identify and overcome the barriers to discharge of these patients, desperately needed hospital beds can be opened up.
  3. Board admitted patients in the emergency department. There are a lot of reasons why boarder patients are undesirable (see my previous post). But in the short run, this is often the easiest way to accommodate a surge in admissions. If the number of boarders in the ER becomes too high, then the ER becomes congested and unable to provide care for regular emergency patients.
  4. Board post-surgical patients in the post-op recovery unit. Most patients recover in the recovery unit and then go to a regular hospital room to spend the night (for outpatient surgeries that require overnight observation) or spend several nights (for elective inpatient surgeries). Keeping patients in the recovery room longer can allow extra time needed to get other patients discharged and get those rooms cleaned and ready for the post-op patients. However, at some point, the recovery unit becomes full creating a bottleneck in patient flow in the operating rooms. One solution to this is multi-use space that can serve as pre-op beds in the morning and post-op beds in the afternoons. However, if patients remain in the recovery area into the evening or night, then you have to have the nurses to care for those patients and this either means keeping the post-op recovery area nurses overtime or “floating” nurses from other floors to the recovery area.
  5. Stop accepting hospital transfers. This is a tactic that only works for larger referral hospitals that normally have transfers comprise a significant percentage of their admissions. These transfers are usually patients with complex medical or surgical conditions coming from small hospitals that are not equipped to manage them and so these patients still need to be transferred somewhere. If all of the other referral hospitals in the area are also full, this can mean that the patient in a small hospital may need to be transported to a hospital in a far-away city or even another state. During the first surge in COVID cases in January 2021, it was not uncommon for me to get a call about transferring a patient with respiratory failure from a physician in a town such as Defiance, Ohio who had already had his patient turned down for transfer from all of the referral hospitals in Toledo, Dayton, Cincinnati, and Cleveland.
  6. Put the emergency department on divert. When the emergency department goes on divert status, emergency squads are directed to take patients to other emergency departments. This is undesirable from a community standpoint because it can result in delays in caring for critically ill patients by having the squads travel to emergency departments that are further away. There are a lot of reasons why an emergency department might go on divert: too many patients backed up in the waiting areas, a bolus of cardiac arrest or trauma patients that temporarily requires all of the available ER staff to manage, a hospital power failure, too many inpatient boarders in the ER, etc. During the COVID surges, there were days when all of the hospitals in Columbus were at full inpatient capacity and all of the emergency departments went on divert – when this happens, the agency that oversees regional trauma care institutes “city-wide divert”. In this situation, the region’s emergency squads go to hospitals on a rotational basis so that all hospitals share the excess patients equally.
  7. Cancel elective admissions. This mainly affects surgeries – both elective inpatient surgeries (such as spine surgery) and outpatient surgeries that require an overnight stay (such as knee replacement surgery). Hospital leaders hate to do this because these surgeries are very financially lucrative. The result is replacing a surgery patient that the hospital can make money on with a medical patient that the hospital can at best hope to break even on. In addition, by canceling surgeries, the surgeons and anesthesiologists are idle and the hospital usually ends up paying the salaries for these highly-paid physicians since they cannot earn their income in the operating room.
  8. Open up new beds. In a crisis, hospitals can convert many areas of the hospital into emergency-use patient care areas: decommissioned nursing units, the endoscopy suite, the sleep lab, the cardiac cath lab recovery area, etc. There is an inherent inefficiency to using these areas for inpatients as they are not equipped to care for inpatients and the normal nurses for these areas are unaccustomed to regular inpatient care. Also, when these areas are used for inpatients, they cannot be used for their normal purposes and this results in canceling  elective procedures.
  9. Create new space. When the hospital has maximized available space within the building, the next step is often to create temporary hospital space . During the initial surge in COVID cases, we erected a large tent in the parking lot adjacent to the emergency department to do triage and care for low-acuity emergency room patients. The Ohio National Guard helped to convert the Columbus Convention Center into a several hundred bed hospital area for low-acuity inpatients (that we fortunately never needed to utilize). Other hospitals converted parking garages, college dormitories, and hotel rooms into temporary patient care areas.
  10. Ration healthcare. This is usually done only as a last resort. Although often discussed in the U.S. during COVID surges, it was rarely, if ever implemented in our country. But in underdeveloped nations, this is a fact of daily life. If there are only 3 ventilators in a hospital with no others within several hundred miles, then the doctors have to choose which three patients get to use the ventilators. Even in developed countries, such as Italy, the first surge of COVID resulted in rationing of ventilators and ICU beds to only those patients felt to be most likely to survive.

Where do you find more doctors and nurses?

When hospitals start opening up new beds or new space for inpatients, those beds are only useful if there are doctors, nurses, and other staff available to cover them. During January 2021, we staffed new COVID ICU areas with anesthesiologists, hospitalists, trauma surgeons, and emergency medicine physicians rather than critical care internists. Recovery room nurses, addiction medicine nurses, and cardiac cath lab nurses were sent to staff med-surg nursing units and ICUs. We brought in general internists and family physicians who normally worked in outpatient clinics to function as hospitalists. CMS made an emergency allowance that residents and fellows in training could be temporarily credentialed as attending physicians and were allowed to bill for inpatient services. Many hospitals turned to recently retired physicians and nurses. “Traveler” nurses and locum tenens physicians (frequently from out of state) were often brought in to help with inpatient care.

Currently in Ohio, the governor has deployed the National Guard to the most crowded hospitals to assist. The problem with the National Guard is that most of the doctors and nurses in the National Guard are already tied up caring for patients in their own hospitals during the current COVID surge and so the only members of the National Guard available to help are non-healthcare workers who can only assist with support activities in hospitals.

Keeping up morale

When hospitals run out of beds and operate at full capacity (or over full capacity), it puts enormous strain on the mental health of the healthcare workers: Nurses who are caring for patients with conditions that they are not familiar with. Doctors who are taking care of more patients than they normally manage in a day. Everyone exhausted from working extra shifts. Angry patients and families lashing out at healthcare workers. Experiencing mounting numbers of deaths. All of these contribute to burn out. Even if the hospital administrators can open new physical beds, those beds are useless if the healthcare workers call-off work or quit due to burnout. Also, a toxic doctor or nurse may provide a needed warm body in the short run but will poison the workplace for other doctors and nurses in the long run. Fortunately, there are some things that medical directors can do.

  1. Communicate. This is probably the single most important tool that medical directors have to combat staff burnout. Times of crisis create information vacuums and unless hospital leaders communicate regularly, that vacuum will be filled by rumors and conspiracy theories. In-person town hall meetings, virtual Zoom meetings, daily website posts, and emails all have their roles and it is best to use a combination in order to ensure the largest audience possible.
  2. Be a cheerleader. More than any other time, during high capacity periods, medical directors and other hospital leaders need to get out of their offices and get into the patient care areas. It is essential that you are visible to the doctors and nurses and show that you are there to serve them. Look for excuses to give compliments. Show up at code blues, STEMI alerts, and trauma alerts. And don’t forget about the night shift staff.
  3. Recognize burnout. Knowing the signs of burnout can allow you to intervene early when burnout is still reversible. The worst thing you can do is to deny that burnout exists.
  4. Offer help. Counselors and other mental health professionals can help build resilience in the healthcare workers and making them freely available to hospital staff is a must.
  5. Offer accommodations. This could be as simple as allowing staff to do non-standard length shifts so that they can be home to take care of children. It could include reserving a block of hotel rooms for nurses who live out of town to stay in order to avoid long-distance commutes.
  6. Offer perks. Minor services  such as paying the cost of grocery delivery, Uber rides, baby sitting costs, and laundry services are relatively inexpensive for hospitals but can go a long way toward preventing burnout during times of healthcare worker stress from high inpatient capacity. Periodically buying pizza and cookies is a small measure but shows the staff that you are thinking about them.
  7. Pay them. Overtime compensation and bonuses are powerful prevention against disgruntlement. When the hospital is full for prolonged periods of time, it is probably losing money from canceled surgeries, etc. But this is why hospitals maintain a certain number of days cash on hand and the hospital should not be afraid to use those reserves.

U.S. hospitals are about to fill up

As of January 14, 2022, the United States is seeing not only the highest number of daily cases of COVID-19 than at anytime in the pandemic (red line in the graph above) but we are also seeing the highest number of patients hospitalized with COVID (yellow line in the graph above). From experience, we know that hospitalizations do not peak until 2-3 weeks after case numbers peak so our hospitals are only going to become more full before the end of this month. The good news is that the percent test positivity peaks about a week or so before the case numbers peak and the most recent data from the CDC suggests that the percent test positivity is just starting to come down (yellow line in the graph below). If this trend continues, then we should see the case numbers begin to fall within the next week or so.

But COVID does not affect different parts of the country at the same time and many cities and states may not see the peaks in case numbers and hospitalizations for several weeks.

Regardless, we are about to see our nation’s hospitals more full of patients than ever before and each hospital needs to develop plans for how it will get through the next month.

January 16, 2022

Categories
Hospital Finances Inpatient Practice

Avoid Losing Money On Medical Admissions: 30 Tactics

Every hospital medical director knows that the hospital makes money on surgical admissions and loses money on medical admissions. A highly efficient hospital can at best hope to break even on medical admissions. Nevertheless, those medical admissions are a crucial part of a hospital’s obligation to provide comprehensive community healthcare. The profitability of surgeries and surgical admissions is why there was a proliferation of surgical specialty hospitals between 1995 and 2010.

The number of hospitals and hospital beds has dropped significantly over the past 45 years. In 1975, there were 9,156 hospitals in the U.S. and in 2019, that number had fallen to 6,090 hospitals. In 1975, there were 1.5 million hospital beds in the United States but by 2019, there were only 920,000. However, in the past decade, the market size of specialty hospitals has grown from $46 billion in 2011 to an estimated $51 billion in 2021. The majority of specialty hospitals are long-term acute care hospitals (LTACHs) or rehabilitation hospitals but 6% of specialty hospitals are dedicated to orthopedic surgery and 5% to cardiac surgery. Some of the greatest opposition for surgical specialty hospitals has come from the American Hospital Association because of concern that surgical specialty hospitals will “skim off the cream” of revenues from general hospitals, making it more difficult for general hospitals to continue to stay in business.

In the past, the majority of surgical specialty hospitals (70%) were physician-owned, typically by the surgeons who operated there. The Affordable Care Act restricted the growth of new physician-owned surgical specialty hospitals in 2010 but allowed existing physician-owned specialty hospitals to be grand-fathered and continue to operate. So, for now, general hospitals can retain their surgical volume but these hospitals must also seek ways to keep from losing money on medical admissions.

CMS publishes the amount that it reimburses hospitals for every type of diagnosis, by DRG. These datasets show reimbursement averaged across the country, by each state, and by each individual hospital.  The most recent data is from 2018. Of the top 20 most common admission DRGs, 18 were medical (red bars in the graph below) and only 2 were surgical (blue bars).

However, if we look at the top 10 most common medical DRGs and the top 10 surgical DRGs, there is a dramatic difference in total payments (the amount paid by Medicare plus the amount paid by the patient or by co-insurance). The average total hospital payments for the top 10 medical diagnoses was $8,833 but the average total payments for the top 10 surgical diagnoses was $23,971. In fact, the lowest reimbursing surgical DRG ($14,761) still paid more than the highest paying medical DRG ($13,881).

So, with medical admissions predominating in the United States and with hospitals at best maintaining a razor-thin margin on those medical admissions, how can hospitals stay in business? The simple strategy is to do more surgeries. This is why hospitals are always eager to build new operating rooms, subsidize high surgeon salaries, and provide surgeons amenities such as physician assistants and nurse practitioners to attract more surgeons to their medical staff. But the other strategy hospitals can take is to avoid losing money on medical admissions. Because of the greater number of medical admissions, small improvements in throughput efficiency of medical patients can have a huge impact on the overall financial margin. Here are 30 specific tactics hospitals can take:

  1. Measure length of stay accurately. In a previous post, I outlined why using the midnight census as a measure of length of stay is obsolete. It is more insightful to measure length of stay in terms of total hours of hospitalization plus daytime hours of hospitalization. This can provide the hospital with much more meaningful data about throughput efficiency. Longer length of stay means more costly hospital stays. In order to decrease length of stay, first you must be able to measure it in a meaningful way.
  2. The work-up starts with the admission orders. Medical admissions tend to peak in the early evening. By this time, the night shift hospitalists are on duty. In many hospitals, the culture is to tuck patients in at night and then leave the work-up to the daytime medical team. As a consequence, a single hospitalist is often tasked with doing a large number of admission history and physical exams at night. A hospitalist doing 10-15 admissions a night does not have time to do much diagnostic planning – all he or she can do is put out fires. If a patient comes in with heart failure, the orders for a cardiology consult or cardiac echo is often left up to the daytime physician. This can result in delays of hours or even an entire day, depending on what time of day the daytime physician rounds. Establish an expectation that the night shift hospitalist put in orders for tests and consults necessary for that patient’s work-up. Also, ensure that the hospital is adequately staffed with physicians and/or advance practice providers during times of peak admissions. This may require a swing shift hospitalist or short shift hospitalist to help during the busy evening hours.
  3. The day shift hospitalist should not have to re-do the admission history and physical exam from a night time admission. This can be a waste of time and delay getting necessary diagnostic testing performed. The H&P done at night needs to be readily available first thing in the morning. If the hospitalists use a dictation service, then ensure that the transcription turn-around time of the dictated H&P is short enough that the day shift hospitalist can see it first thing in the morning. If the H&P is performed using electronic medical entry key entry, then ensure that the impression and plan is thorough and insightful – not just a list of symptoms and physical exam abnormalities at the end of the H&P.
  4. Consult frequently and consult early. I see this as one of the most common reasons for delayed discharges. Maybe the hospitalist wants to wait to see what the cardiac echo shows before consulting the cardiologist. Or maybe wait to see if the patient with a COPD exacerbation starts to turn around after a couple of days of steroids and bronchodilators before ordering a pulmonary consult. In some hospitals, the culture is that the hospitalist who consults liberally is not a good enough doctor to take care of the patient by themself. There should be a clear expectation that a consult is not a sign of weakness. This expectation should be both on the part of the hospitalist and on the part of the specialty consultants. The specialist who complains that he or she gets consulted too often is unworthy of any financial support from the hospital and has no place on the medical staff. In teaching hospitals, residents and fellows involved in consultation need to be educated that there is no consult question too small. Inpatient medical care is a team sport, not an individual sport – the faster the team is assembled, the faster the patient gets better.
  5. Consultants should place their own orders. One of the best ways to extend a patient’s length of stay is to prohibit consultants from placing orders. Sometimes this occurs because the hospitalists are territorial about orders and do not want anyone other than themselves entering orders on their patients. Sometimes this occurs because the consultants are fearful of the responsibility of putting in order, are lazy, or just do not know how to put orders into the electronic medical record. Hospitalists generally round once a day on their patients and if they round early in the morning and a consultant recommends a test or medication change in their consult note later in the morning, that consultant’s recommendation may not be seen for a full day. I’ve seen too many discharges delayed because the gastroenterologist would not place an order for a colonoscopy prep or a neurologist would not place an order for a brain MRI.
  6. Utilize protocol-driven de-escalation. One very effective protocol that our hospital used was a nurse-driven urinary catheter removal protocol. As soon as a patient met certain criteria, the nurse was empowered to remove the Foley catheter without a specific order from a physician to remove it. Other examples are pharmacist-driven IV to PO medication conversion protocols and respiratory therapist-driven de-escalation of nebulizer treatment frequency.
  7. Be a 7-day a week hospital. Patients are no less sick on Sunday as they are on Wednesday. Not every hospital has the staff or resources to provide every procedure or test on weekends but it is important to identify those tests that need to be done on the weekend to avoid delays in discharge. One way of doing this is to compare the number of tests or procedures done on Mondays compared to other weekdays. If you find that there is a spike in PICC line placements, cardiac stress tests, or duplex ultrasounds on Mondays, then that may be a sign that those procedures need to be offered on Saturdays and Sundays. Sometimes the weekend delay is due to a delay in a second, downstream procedure. For example, if the pathology lab only processes biopsy specimens on weekday mornings, then there is no point in doing a bronchoscopy or a CT-guided needle biopsy between noon on Fridays and 8:00 AM on Monday since specimens will not be processed in the lab until the following Monday. If you get resistance to offering tests on the weekend because “…the procedure volume isn’t there“, then see if part of the procedure schedule can be filled with elective outpatients. You may find that there are many outpatients who do not want to take a day off of work during the week to get their screening colonoscopy or their knee MRI and would prefer to get them done on a Saturday or Sunday.
  8. Discharge planning starts on admission. It usually takes several days to arrange for a nursing home bed and the sooner your case management staff can start to work on discharge planning, the faster you can get the patient out of the hospital.
  9. Be creative when it comes to long-term IV antibiotics. Drug abuse is rampant in the United States and people who abuse drugs get osteomyelitis and endocarditis, often requiring 6-8 weeks of intravenous antibiotics. Because of their drug use history, home healthcare companies will not accept them for home IV therapy so they stay in the hospital. For that 6-8 week hospitalization, the average hospital payment by Medicare is $10,476 for osteomyelitis and $13,042 for endocarditis. With those payments, the hospital starts losing money after about day #4. Consider tamper-resistant PICC lines for drug abusers so that they can get their IV antibiotics as outpatients. When can the patient be safely changed to an oral antibiotic to complete therapy – for example, can oral Bactrim be substituted for IV vancomycin? There are several recent studies demonstrating the safety and efficacy of treating these patients with oral antibiotics but many national special society practice guidelines have not been updated and still advise IV antibiotics for the entire treatment duration. Your hospital may need to create its own evidence-based practice guideline to empower the physicians to complete treatment for osteomyelitis and endocarditis with oral antibiotics. If a patient is uninsured, it is going to be less expensive for the hospital to give the patient a daily IV antibiotic in an outpatient infusion suite than as an inpatient. The same goes for expensive oral antibiotics that the patient may not be able to afford as an outpatient, such as daptomycin.
  10. LTACHs are your friend. Long-term acute care hospitals (LTACHs) are one of the most common types of specialty hospitals. All too often, we think about LTACHs as a discharge option for patients late in their hospitalization. Frequently, these patients met LTACH criteria earlier in their hospitalization but by the time the referral goes to the LTACH, the patient no longer meets criteria. Even if they do still meet criteria, it often takes several days to get insurance approval for the LTACH. Consider putting together a protocol that any patient admitted in the ICU for more than 3 days gets an automatic consult to your local LTACH. That consult does not obligate you to discharge the patient to the LTACH but it can shave valuable days off of the length of stay for those patients who ultimately do benefit by transfer to an LTACH.
  11. Don’t forget about physical therapy. As a pulmonary consultant, one of the most common orders I would place was for physical therapy because the primary inpatient physician did not think about it. For patients who will eventually be discharged home, the physical therapist can get them strong enough to be discharged earlier. For patients who may need to be discharged to a skilled nursing facility, the physical therapist’s assessment can be instrumental in getting started on the SNF referral earlier in the hospitalization. If your COPD exacerbation and heart failure exacerbation patients have not gotten out of bed in the first 4 days of their hospitalization, you are going to lose money on that hospital admission.
  12. Don’t order expensive stuff if you don’t have to. There are certain tests that are very expensive to perform and there are tests that take days or weeks to get the results back. Often, the results of those tests are not necessary for the outcome of an inpatient hospitalization. When ordered as an outpatient, these tests are individually charged to Medicare or the insurance company. But when ordered as an inpatient, the hospital assumes the cost of performing these tests as part of the global DRG payment that the hospital gets for whatever primary diagnosis the patient has. In some cases, the cost of the test is more than the total amount that the hospital gets for the patient’s DRG. The biggest offenders here are genetic tests. Each year, Medicare publishes its Clinical Diagnostic Laboratory Fee Schedule, which is the amount that Medicare will pay for any given lab test. Some of the more expensive tests that you should avoid ordering as an inpatient include exome sequence analysis ($12,000), gene analysis of breast tumor tissue ($3,873), gene analysis for colon cancer ($3,116), and epilepsy gene analysis ($2,448). Wait until the patient returns for an outpatient appointment to order these tests. Similarly, if a patient admitted with pneumonia mentions that he has had knee pain for the past 5 years, don’t order an inpatient knee MRI, instead schedule an outpatient rheumatology appointment and let the rheumatologist order the MRI.
  13. You need a robust antimicrobial stewardship program. A commonly held belief among physicians is that if a little is good then more must be better. This does not always apply to antibiotics. Sometimes an older, generic antibiotic is not only considerably less expensive than the newest generation cephalosporin but that older antibiotic many actually be the better drug for a given infection. Your hospital will pay twice for excessive use of antibiotics – first in the initial cost of expensive antibiotics and later in a rise in drug-resistant hospital-acquired infections that will result from over-zealous use of broad-spectrum antibiotics. A responsive antimicrobial stewardship program will keep both of these costs down.
  14. Capture all of the CCs and MCCs. Co-morbid conditions (CCs) and major co-morbid conditions (MCCs) are used like adjectives to the DRG. If a patient with sepsis also has hyponatremia and leukemia at the time of admission, then the hyponatremia is a CC and the leukemia is an MCC. The more adjectives you attach to that DRG when the hospital submits its bill to Medicare or an insurance company, the more money the hospital gets paid for that particular DRG. The CCs and MCCs also make the case mix index higher which can affect metrics such as mortality index and length of stay index. One of the problems is that the CCs and MCCs need to be listed in a physician’s history and physical exam or be listed in a progress note as being “present on admission”. Hospitalists are not inherently rewarded for tediously listing out all of the CCs and MCCs since they get paid the same amount for doing an H&P no matter how many CCs and MCCs a patient has. Therefore, the hospital either has to find a way to financially incentive listing out CCs and MCCs (for example, incentives based on case mix index) or find another mechanism for identifying CCs and MCCs (such as having nurse charting specialists review every patient chart at the time of admission and then having them ask the hospitalist to make addendums to their H&Ps accordingly).
  15. Leave the procedure schedule open in the morning. In most hospitals, diagnostic tests are performed on both outpatients and inpatients in the same location. The schedulers will usually fill up the schedule by starting with the earliest appointment of the day. Consequently, outpatients who are scheduled days or weeks in advance will be put in the morning slots, leaving inpatients to get their tests at the end of the day. At best, that results in a several hour discharge delay for many patients and at worst, it results in an entire day delay in discharge. If you have a relatively predictable number of these tests that are commonly done on inpatients, then block out the first morning appointments on the outpatient schedule so those inpatients can get their tests early in order to get them discharged faster. Procedures where this tactic can be useful include cardiac stress tests, cardiac echos, cardiac catheterizations, duplex ultrasounds, and colonoscopies/endoscopies.
  16. Manage long length of stay patients. A hospital is not a hotel. The hotel gets paid by the number of nights a customer is in a room. The hospital gets paid a set amount based on the patient’s DRG regardless of how many nights a patient is in a room. Once the hospital generates expenses equal to the DRG, the hospital loses more and more money each day that patient remains in the hospital. A weekly workgroup consisting of case management, social service, hospitalists, psychiatry, the medical director, and legal can identify those long length of stay outliers and develop strategies to get them out of the hospital. I would review the hospital census weekly and call the hospitalists responsible for patients with a length of stay greater than 2-3 weeks to ask what I could do to help expedite discharge. Sometimes, all it took was that phone call to get the discharge ball rolling.
  17. Don’t overdo observation status. When a patient arrives in the emergency department, if it appears that the patient’s condition can be treated within 2 midnights, then that patient is placed in observation status. This is an outpatient designation and as such, the patient will be responsible for a generous co-pay and be responsible for their medication charges. These charges frequently go unpaid (especially by lower income Medicare and Medicaid patients) and the hospital has to write them off. If the financial margin is thin for medical inpatient admissions, it is non-existent for observation status patients. Most of the observation status patients are there for a medical condition, such as chest pain, syncope, or heart failure. A disconnect between the hospitalists and the hospital is that the hospitalist gets paid exactly the same by Medicare or commercial insurance whether the patient is an inpatient or observation status. However, entering enough justification data into the H&P to warrant inpatient admission (versus observation status) can be tedious and so some hospitalists will take the path of least resistance in borderline patients and put them in observation status. Measure your observation length of stay and if it is > 2.0 days (or > 18 daytime hours), then you have a problem. Either you are keeping the observation patients in the hospital too long or you are mislabeling patients as being in observation status that should really be in inpatient status. If it is the former, then consider creating an observation unit that specializes in protocol-driven care of observation status patients (perhaps staffed by NPs/PAs). If it is the latter, then work with the hospitalists to be sure that they are educated about the difference in observation status versus inpatient status and eliminate any hidden incentives that are causing them to preferentially put patients in observation status.
  18. Use disease-specific order sets. You have an electronic medical record, now harness it. If you want to be sure that patients admitted with a COPD exacerbation are getting oral steroids and oral generic azithromycin rather than IV Solu-Medrol and IV levofloxacin, then create a COPD order set with the desired medications in it. Same goes for ensuring that patients with heart failure get a cardiology consult and a cardiac echo. I have admitted thousands of patients to the hospital and when entering orders a al carte, it is way too easy to forget to order a needed test or to order an expensive drug when a cheaper drug would have been as good or better. Order sets make it simple for the admitting hospitalists to treat medical conditions efficiently and effectively.
  19. Get the pharmacists up on the patient floors. I cannot overstate the value of hospital pharmacists. They are way overtrained for how we too often use them. Allow them to practice at the top of their license. They know more about medications than the doctors do and can be an invaluable resource for discontinuing drugs that are no longer needed (such as antibiotics), eliminating duplicate medications, avoiding drug-drug interactions that can prolong hospital stays, dosing medications correctly for renal function/liver function/age, etc. In the best of all worlds, the pharmacists would round with the physicians daily as part of multidisciplinary rounds. At the least, a pharmacist should meet with the hospitalists daily to do a quick medication review of each patient.
  20. Get eligible patients signed up for Medicaid. When Medicaid expansion came to Ohio, our hospital’s self-pay rate fell from 13.0% of all inpatient admissions to 2.5% of admissions. Many patients who are eligible for Medicaid do not sign up for it on their own either because they didn’t think they would need it before they got sick or because they didn’t know how to sign up. Our patient financial services staff were outstanding and identified these patients at the time of admission and assisted them in getting on Medicaid. Although hospitals do not make much on Medicaid patient admissions, it is more than they make on uninsured patient admissions.
  21. Focus on the ICU. The most expensive care that most medical patients receive is in the intensive care unit. It therefore follows that the hospital will get the greatest cost savings by reducing ICU length of stay and ICU expenses. Specific measures can include respiratory therapy-driven ventilator weaning protocols, daily multidisciplinary rounds, and use of “ventilator bundle” order sets. Palliative medicine is almost never able to be self-supportive based on physician billings alone and can be very expensive for the hospital to subsidize. The ICU is one location where the cost of palliative medicine can be more than offset by the expense reduction that palliative medicine can bring.
  22. Support the inpatient psychiatry consultation service. Patients with pure psychiatric conditions, such as suicidal ideation and decompensated schizophrenia, generally go straight from the emergency department to an inpatient psychiatry hospital. However, if those same patients also have an uncontrolled medical condition, then they get admitted to a general hospital as medical admissions. Like palliative medicine, psychiatry consult services usually require hospital support and cannot survive on physician professional billing alone. Patients with dual diagnoses (medical plus psychiatric) often have the longest length of stay. Ensure that daily inpatient psychiatric consultation is available and utilized early in these patients’ hospital stay.
  23. Avoid boarding in the emergency department. When a patient in the emergency department has an inpatient admission order placed but there are no available inpatient beds, then that patient remains in the ER as a “boarder”. Boarders are patients languishing in a purgatory between the inpatient world and the outpatient world. The ER physicians no longer considers the patients their responsibility and the hospitalists are usually up on the inpatient floors and not physically present in the ER to attend to the boarders. The patients become the lowest priority for the ER nurses, tests do not get done, and consultants do not come down to see the patients in the ER. If you have a lot of boarders, then you have a long length of stay and a congested emergency department. Usually boarders mean that the length of stay of your inpatients is too long or you just don’t have enough inpatient beds. If boarding usually occurs on the same day of the week, then look at your elective surgical admissions to see if they can be better spread across all days of the week to prevent boluses of surgical admissions on certain days.
  24. Manage the hospital formulary. Most physicians have absolutely no idea how much medications cost. They may read an article about a new drug that they now want to prescribe or be lobbied by a pharmaceutical company representative to get an expensive new drug on the hospital formulary. Maybe you have several strong-willed physicians who have strong personal opinions about different drugs used to treat the same thing with the result that you end up with a lot of duplicate drugs on the formulary. If the formulary is too large, then there is a danger of having to waste too many expired drugs and danger that a more expensive drug will be used when a less expensive drug would have done the same thing. The formulary committee that takes an evidence-based approach to putting new drugs on the hospital formulary can keep costs down.
  25. Transition care clinics. Hospitalists and primary care physicians live in different worlds that do not intersect. Hospitalists want to get the patient fully “tuned up” before releasing that patient to the wild unknowns of the outpatient world. Transition clinics can be very helpful to give the hospitalists the confidence to discharge patients as soon as they are ready to be discharged rather than waiting “just one more day to be sure they’re ready to fly on their own…“. The specialties that are most amenable to transition clinics are pulmonary, heart failure, and diabetes.
  26. And a word about TB… OK, as a pulmonologist, I have a pet peeve. When a patient comes in with respiratory symptoms and tuberculosis is even a remote consideration, then that patient is placed in a negative airflow room and nothing happens until that patient has 3 negative sputum AFB stains. In the past, this meant 1 sputum sent to the microbiology lab every day for three days. This is unnecessary. The sputum samples only need to be separated by 8 hours so patients should be able to come out of discharge-delaying airborne isolation in just 1 day instead of 3 days. Make sure that the hospitalists order the sputum AFB samples every 8 hours, the nurses collect them promptly every 8 hours and the lab performs AFB stains 7 days a week – it will take 2 days off of these patients’ length of stay.
  27. Do you need an inpatient hospice? An inpatient hospice that is separate from the host hospital (i.e., has a different corporate taxpayer ID) can help earlier discharge of patients going to hospice and can avoid many ICU patients spending their last days of life in the intensive care unit after a decision to withdraw supportive care is reached. In order to be financially viable, most hospice organizations will not want to create an inpatient hospice unit unless they can be assured of keeping at least 4 hospice beds full before they will lease space from the host hospital. This may not be possible for small hospitals but can be very effective for larger hospitals. If you cannot justify an inpatient hospice unit in your hospital, then build a partnership with a free-standing inpatient hospice.
  28. Partner with SNFs and home healthcare agencies. Strong relations with skilled nursing facilities that you trust to provide high quality can be mutually advantageous. They get preferred provider referrals from you and your patients get to the top of their wait list. Similarly, strong relations with home healthcare companies and home oxygen companies can ensure that home nursing care or home oxygen can be readily available at the time of a medical patient’s discharge, even if that discharge happens on short notice.
  29. Get the right culture about quality. Fundamentally, the quality department should be focused on patient safety and infection control. But the scope of quality has expanded over the past 20 years and now issues such as hospital readmission rates, inpatient length of stay, and physician coding compliance often fall under the purview of the quality department. As a result, the quality department has become the messenger of all things bad to many physicians. A phone call from the medical director of quality is about as welcome as a phone call from an IRS auditor. As a consequence, many physicians have come to fear the quality department. Instead, the physicians and the quality department should be working together toward mutual goals of infection control and patient safety. If the hospitalist is worried about getting a call to the office of the director of quality because the hospital readmission rate is going to result in a $20,000 annual Medicare readmission penalty to the hospital, that hospitalist is going to increase his/her patient length of stay in order to be sure that the patients are good and ready to be discharged and not come back, even if the cost of that increased length of stay results in an extra annual $500,000 of hospital expenses.
  30. Avoid the “dailies”. Do your ICU patients on ventilators really need a daily chest x-ray to check the position of their endotracheal tube? Does your patient with heart failure getting diuresed on a medical unit really need a daily CBC? If you ask your hospitalist or intensivist why they order daily labs and x-rays, they will usually say that it is because that’s the way they’ve always done it. Many times, these are unnecessary. Similarly, the Q shift I/Os can cost an extra 15 minutes of nursing time every day and are not necessary for every inpatient. A daily weight may be an extra 5 minutes.

Parity between medical and surgical admission reimbursement is nowhere on the immediate horizon. Until such parity exists, hospitals need to both encourage more surgical admissions and better manage the costs of medical admissions. These 30 tactics will get you off to a good start.

August 24, 2021

Categories
Hospital Finances Inpatient Practice

When It Comes To Length Of Stay, We Are Measuring The Wrong Thing

Hospital length of stay (LOS) is one of the most important metrics we use to judge hospital efficiency and to predict whether the hospital is making money or losing money on different diagnoses. LOS is measured in days with each day defined as whether a patient is considered admitted to the hospital at midnight. This is the so-called midnight census. I believe that the midnight census is no longer a valid measurement for the calculation of the duration of hospitalization.

Never admit a patient between 10 PM and midnight

If your hospital judges or bonuses hospitalists based on length of stay, then those hospitalists know to avoid writing admission orders in the two hours before midnight. The simple reason is that when the midnight hour strikes, that patient is already considered to have been in the hospital for one day when using the midnight census of admitted patients to measure length of stay.

Consider two patients, patient A and patient B who both arrive in the emergency department with pneumonia on a Tuesday evening. The ER physician determines that both patients need to be admitted to the hospital and the on-duty hospitalist is called to the ER to write admission orders. Patient A has an admission order placed at 11:59 PM and patient B has an admission order placed at 12:01 AM, two minutes later. Both patients improve with medical treatment and are ready to be discharged on Friday. Patient A is discharged at 8 AM Friday morning and patient B is discharged at 4 PM Friday afternoon. By using the midnight census to measure duration of hospitalization, patient A has a length of stay of 3 days and patient B has a length of stay of 2 days. However, patient A was actually hospitalized for 56 hours and patient B was actually hospitalized for 64 hours. Using the midnight census measurement, patient B’s hospitalization was  33% shorter than patient A’s but based on hours in the hospital, patient B’s hospital stay was 14% longer than patient A’s.

Hospitalists are aware of this and if they are judged by the number of midnights their patients are in the hospital, they will delay writing an admission order until after midnight whenever feasible in order to improve their LOS numbers.

“I’m getting my discharge orders written earlier in the day, so why isn’t my length of stay improving?”

Hospital administrators want to have patients discharged as early in the day as possible so that rooms can be cleaned and ready for the next bolus of hospital admissions. By using the midnight census, a patient’s length of stay will be the same whether that patient is discharged at 7:00 AM or 5:00 PM. Thus initiatives to get patients discharged earlier in the day will not affect the length of stay as measured by the midnight census.

In order to measure hospital efficiency, the hospital must measure both the length of stay and the time of day of discharge. However, the time of day of discharge is also fraught with flaws. For example, if a hospital bonuses its hospitalists on earlier discharge orders, the hospitalists may hold off on discharging a patient who is ready for discharge in the late afternoon and instead discharge them early the following morning so that their numbers look good. Additionally, depending on when a patient was admitted to the hospital, a patient discharged in the late afternoon may actually have a shorter duration of stay (in hours) than a patient discharged early in the morning. In that case, you don’t want to penalize the hospitalist for getting the patient out of the hospital faster, simply because that patient was discharged in the afternoon.

So, why use the midnight census to measure length of stay?

Hospitals have used the midnight census for decades. In the pre-computerization era, it was the most easy and reliable way to know how many patients were in the hospital – unit clerks or nursing supervisors would write down the number of admitted patients on each nursing unit at midnight and then report that to the hospital administration the following morning. That was also an era when hospitals typically ran at a lower capacity with the result that there were always empty beds to admit patients to and consequently, there was not pressure to get patients discharged as early in the day as possible.

In the pre-computerization era, it was difficult to track the time of day that a patient was discharged since it required someone to manually go through each patient’s paper chart to collect the time of day of that patient’s admission and discharge; many doctors did not enter the time of day that they hand wrote their orders and many nurses did not enter the time of day that they took those orders off of the patients’ charts. Electronic medical records have changed all of that and now the exact time an admission or discharge order is placed and acted on can be measured with a keystroke. Yet, the midnight census remains as a hold-over from the pre-computer era.

In addition, before the institution of diagnosis-related groups (DRGs) by Medicare in 1983, it really did not matter how long a patient was in the hospital since the hospital was usually paid by number of days that a patient was in the hospital. As a result, the longer the length of stay, the more the hospital got paid. With  DRGs, hospitals got paid based on a patient’s diagnosis and not based on the length of stay. Therefore, hospitals became motivated to shorten the length of stay in order to reduce their expenses for each patient. Once again, the midnight census remains a hold-over from the pre-DRG era.

The institution of DRGs was also a turning point for the time of day that patients were hospitalized. Prior to DRGs, most hospital admissions were elective admissions and those patients often had pre-planned testing and treatments and were usually admitted to the hospital in the late morning or early afternoon. Nighttime emergency admissions through the ER were less frequent. With daytime elective admissions predominating, the midnight census was a reasonably good measure of length of stay. DRGs brought an end to most elective medical admissions with a shift to the overwhelming majority now being admitted through the emergency department with the peak in ER admissions typically in the late afternoon or early evening. With that shift, the midnight census became a less accurate metric for measuring actual length of stay.

Length of stay should be measured in hours and not in days

The midnight census is a satisfactory measure in patients with a very long length of stay – if a patient is in the hospital for 50 days, then whether that is actually 49 days or 51 days has little impact on hospital efficiency. But as the hospital length of stay becomes shorter, the midnight census becomes a less accurate measurement. Given the flaws of using the midnight census to measure length of stay, I believe that we should move to measuring LOS by the hour. Our electronic medical records makes hourly measurement quite easy.

However, there are two types of hours in the hospital – daytime hours and nighttime hours. During the daytime, hospitalists do daily patient rounds, diagnostic tests are performed, surgeries occur, and consultants evaluate patients. During the nighttime, patients receive medications but the other daytime activities do not take place. In other words, more of the stuff that needs to happen in order to evaluate and treat the patient happens during the daytime hours. For this reason, a patient will spend fewer total hours in the hospital if admitted early in the daytime than if admitted early in the nighttime. Therefore, to accurately assess hospital efficiency, length of stay should be measured in both total hours of hospitalization and daytime hours of hospitalization.

The advantages of using total and daytime hours of hospitalization, rather than the midnight census, to measure length of stay include:

  • A more accurate measure of duration of patient hospitalization, especially for shorter duration hospital admissions
  • A more accurate measure of duration of observation stays which are inherently ultra short-duration stays
  • Elimination of the measurement bias that occurs with nighttime admissions as opposed to daytime admissions
  • Better representation of the effect of early-in-the-day discharge initiatives on length of stay
  • Better identification of individual hospitalists or hospitalist groups that could benefit by patient throughput efficiency training

The biggest barrier is the length of stay index

Hospitals benchmark their length of stay to other hospitals using the length of stay index. If a hospital’s length of stay for a given DRG diagnosis is 4 days and the average of hospitals across the country for that diagnosis is also 4 days, then that hospital’s length of stay index is 1.0 and the hospital has an average length of stay for that diagnosis. If the length of stay index is 1.2, then the hospital requires more inpatient days for that diagnosis and likely has greater expenses per admission. However, if the length of stay index is 0.9, then the hospital is able to treat that diagnosis with fewer inpatient days and likely has lower expenses per admission.

Hospital length of stay benchmarks use the midnight census for length of stay calculation and as long as benchmarks continue doing so, any given hospital will need to continue to measure and report midnight census-based length of stay measurements to determine how that hospital is performing compared to other hospitals.

Nationwide change to an hour-based length of stay measurement (and thus length of stay index measurement) will not happen quickly – the midnight census measurement is just too entrenched in administrative practice and data reporting. However, a hospital that internally uses an hourly measure of length of stay will have a more accurate measurement of its own efficiency and that data can be used gain a competitive advantage.

It is time to move past the midnight census.

August 20, 2021

Categories
Epidemiology Inpatient Practice

The Next Surge In COVID-19 Hospitalizations

Just when we thought it was safe to go back to the movie theater, to church, and to the grocery store… it looks like we are in for COVID, the sequel. The CDC reported that an outbreak of COVID infections in a town on Cape Cod earlier this month resulted in 469 people becoming infected, of whom 74% had previously been vaccinated. Of these vaccinated persons who developed infection, 79% had symptoms and 4 of them required hospitalization. Disturbingly, vaccinated people who developed COVID-19 had the same viral load detected in their noses as unvaccinated people who developed COVID-19.

This change in the epidemiology of the pandemic is attributed to the Delta variant, a much more contagious strain of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Coupling Delta with recent evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is not simply transmitted by droplet spread as originally believed but can also be spread by aerosolization is a warning that we will likely see a resurgence in COVID hospitalizations in the near future. In anticipation of this, the CDC yesterday published recommendations to resume indoor masking for all people (regardless of vaccination status) in areas of the country where there is “substantial or high transmission” of COVID-19. In July 2021, there was a dramatic increase in U.S. counties with high transmission. The three figures below show the change in transmission rates over the past 4 weeks (red is high transmission and orange is substantial transmission):

This data indicates that most U.S. counties are now experiencing high transmission rates. To determine what these trends will mean in the upcoming weeks for U.S. hospitals, we can look at COVID-19 hospitalization trends. The figure below shows the number of new hospitalizations for the entire United States from August 1, 2020 through July 28, 2021. This indicates that the hospitalizations are going up but are not as high as the nationwide peak in January 2021.

Florida was one of the first states to convert from moderate to high transmission over the past month. As such, Florida may be a bellwether for the rest of the country. The figure below shows the same hospitalization data but just for Florida. Hospitalizations in Florida now exceed those of January 2021, when the rest of the country was at peak numbers.

So, if hospitalizations are about to go up, what demographic of patients are likely to be hospitalized? Intuitively, one might think that hospitalizations will be mainly younger people since older Americans are considerably more likely to be vaccinated. The figure below is data from the CDC that shows that in Florida (graph on the right), more younger people are being hospitalized now than in January (yellow line). However, older people still comprise the majority of hospitalizations.

So, what should hospitals do now?

From the Massachusetts outbreak and the Florida data, we can draw several conclusions: (1) the Delta variant is more contagious than earlier variants, (2) vaccinated persons can still get infected and when they do, they have just as high of a viral load as unvaccinated persons, (3) the Delta variant is more likely to be spread by aerosolization rather than simply by droplets, (4) adult hospitalizations are increasing. With those conclusions in mind, here are some tactics that hospitals can take now:

  1. Ensure that all front-line healthcare workers are vaccinated. During the January 2021 surge, many hospitals found that healthcare workers were more likely to get infected by another healthcare worker than by an infected patient. Furthermore, if a hospitalized patient becomes infected from an unvaccinated infected healthcare worker, the hospital could face litigation vulnerability in the future.
  2. Re-institute routine admission SARS-Co-2 testing. Given that more Americans are vaccinated, it is likely that we will begin to see more asymptomatic infections in patients being admitted to the hospital for non-COVID-19 related medical/surgical conditions. These asymptomatic patients can serve as vectors to infect other patients and hospital staff.
  3. Re-institute universal masking. Last winter, nearly all hospitals in the U.S. required patients, visitors, and healthcare workers to wear face masks while in patient care areas and public areas of the hospital. Because of “anti-masking” political pressure, some hospitals have loosened masking requirements in the past few months. These hospitals need to resume universal masking.
  4. Buy more N-95 masks. Given that the Delta variant is so contagious and given that it appears to be more likely to be spread by aerosols than simply by droplets, N-95 masks are likely to be more protective than simple face masks to prevent acquisition of Delta. It is likely that frontline healthcare workers will increasingly demand access to N-95 masks.
  5. Update the surge plan. Last December, hospitals made plans for expanding ICU bed capacity and for increasing the number of non-ICU beds for the January COVID surge of inpatients. It is time to revisit those plans, both for intra-hospital care as well as inter-hospital care.

17 years ago, my family was stuck on an island in the outer banks when Hurricane Alex hit. The night before, the main road became covered by a shifting sand dune and the bridge to Hatteras Island had to be closed. A few hours before impact, the local radio announcer said “Hope for the best but prepare for the worst“. That was sound advice in 2004 and it is sound advice again in 2021.

July 31, 2021

Categories
Inpatient Practice

Changing To A Different Hospitalist Group

Hospitalists have gone from rarities to dominating inpatient care in the past 25 years. Currently, there are approximately 50,000 hospitalists in the United States. The term “hospitalist” was first coined by Dr. Robert Wachter and Dr. Lee Goldman in their 1996 article in the New England Journal of Medicine. The young specialty was quick to show financial benefits to hospitals with studies showing improved hospital length of stay and lower costs per admission in patients cared for by hospitalists. Currently there are 3 common hospitalist practice models:

  1. Hospital-employed physicians
  2. Physicians who are part of local primary care or multi-specialty group practices
  3. Physicians employed by regional or national hospitalist companies that contract with numerous hospitals

There are advantages and disadvantages for each of these 3 models and the optimal model will be different for different hospitals. Periodically, hospitals will choose to change to a different hospitalist model or change to a different physician group within a given model. Managing this transition can pose unique challenges to the hospital.

Timing the decision

The decision to change hospitalist models or change to a different hospitalist group requires long-term planning, and should ideally be made 12-18 months before the intended transition date; the larger the hospital, the more time you will need. A small hospital that only needs a few hospitalists can change groups fairly quickly. But if the hospital is looking at changing coverage of a large number of inpatient beds, then the sheer number of new doctors that have to be recruited and hired takes a lot of advanced preparation. For example, to cover 100 beds, the hospital will need somewhere between 20-30 hospitalists, depending on patient acuity and other factors. Because of the high-demand for hospitalists, it can take many months to recruit this large of a number of doctors – there are not many unemployed hospitalists reading the help-wanted classified ads in the newspaper each morning.

Many new hospitalists will be recruited from internal medicine residency programs. Residency programs run on a July through June cycle so residency graduates will be available in July/August each year. These physicians generally start interviewing for hospitalist jobs about 1 year in advance and most residents from the better programs will have signed contracts by October or November of their senior year of residency. If a hospital waits until December to recruit and interview new graduates, there will be very few uncommitted residents left.

When do you let the doctors know?

The initial planning for a hospitalist transition is usually done privately with only a small number of hospital leaders aware of the plan to change to a different hospitalist group or model. This is necessary because as soon as the current hospitalists know that their employment contracts are going to be terminated, they will start looking for a new job. When to make the upcoming transition public depends on the employment contracts that the doctors have. Most physicians will have a 60, 90, or 120 “without cause” termination clause in their contracts. This means that they have to give 60, 90, or 120 days notice if they intend to leave. The day that you tell the doctors that their employment contracts are going to be terminated is the day that they will begin looking for another job.

You want all of your doctors to stay at the hospital until the date of the upcoming hospitalist transition. If you tell them about the transition 180 days before the date and the doctors have a 90 day without cause termination clause in their employment contracts, then you are going to find yourself with no hospitalists in the final weeks or months before the transition. However, you do want to be fair to the physicians who have been providing care to the patients at your hospital – you might want to hire them again in the future plus it is just the right thing to do. It generally takes at least a month for a hospitalist to find and sign a contract for a new job so a good rule of thumb is to let the current doctors know 30 days more than whatever their without cause termination period is in their contracts. So, if they have a  90 day without cause termination clause, let them know that their contracts will be terminated 120 days in advance.

Have a contingency staffing plan

As soon as the contract termination becomes public knowledge, it will be nearly impossible for the existing hospitalist group to hire new physicians – doctors looking for permanent employment do not want to sign up to work for two or three months. Inevitably, there will be some hospitalists in the current group that were planning on leaving, get sick, get called up for military reserve duty, or go on maternity/paternity leave in the months before the transition. So you have to have a reserve of short-term physicians who can fill in the vacancies until the new hospitalist group starts.

The easiest solution is to hire locum tenens physicians. These can sometimes be local physicians that the hospital can contract with individually to provide short-term hospitalist coverage but more often, these physicians come through a locum tenens company that maintains a pool of doctors who are available for short-term employment. It is important to plan early with the locum tenens physicians so that you can get them through your hospital’s credentialing process well in advance of when you will need them. If the hospital’s credentials office takes 3 months to complete credentials for new physicians, then you need to identify and get started on credentialing those locum tenens physicians shortly after announcing the hospitalist transition decision. Even if you have to pay a retainer to the locum tenens company, it can be worth it so that you do not find yourself with patients but no doctors to take care of them just before the transition date.

Create a transition workgroup

Key leaders from the hospital, the existing hospitalist group, and the new hospitalist group need to meet regularly. Because there can be animosity between the two hospitalist groups, it may be necessary for the hospital leaders to do most meetings with the hospitalist groups individually. Initially, the workgroup should meet monthly and then in the final 2 months of the hospitalist contract, the meetings should be weekly. These meetings may only take 10 – 15 minutes but it is important to put them on everyone’s calendar to ensure a safe and efficient transition. Specific issues to cover include:

  • How will test results that come back after the transition be handled? This will usually require some way of routing electronic medical record “inbaskets” to the new hospitalists.
  • Who will sign verbal orders after the transition date? Verbal orders have a  habit of showing up in the electronic medical record a day or two after the physician actually gave the verbal order. There needs to be a process in place for getting those orders signed. The same goes for signing discharge summaries, H&Ps, and operative notes.
  • How will death certificates be managed? If a patient dies a couple of days before the transition date, the funeral home will likely send the death certificate over to the hospital after the transition date. A mechanism for signing these in a timely fashion must be agreed upon.
  • How long will the current hospitalists have access to the electronic medical record? The doctors may only need to have access for a couple of weeks to sign verbal orders. However, their billing office may need access for several months to manage late bills and provide documentation of services to insurance companies.
  • Managing patient hand-offs. Ideally, the transition hour should be at the end of a day shift rather than the end of a night shift. The hospitalists who have been managing the patients during the daytime are generally in the best position to answer questions about their care than the night coverage hospitalists. This can result in a smoother transition.
  • What about trainee evaluations? If the current hospitalists have medical students or residents, then work with the appropriate education office to ensure that there is a mechanism for end-of-the-rotation evaluations to be completed after the current hospitalists have left. Trainees are notorious for completing their notes late so there needs to be a mechanism for co-signing these notes after the transition date.
  • Get an equipment inventory. After a period of time, is can be easy to forget whether the hospitalist group or the hospital purchased computers, furniture, phones, journal subscriptions, printers, and fax machines. Make sure everyone knows what stuff stays and what stuff goes.

Meet with the nurses and other physicians

Change can be alarming for doctors and nurses who have been accustomed to one group of hospitalists and one pattern of practice. There must be a mechanism for the hospital to clearly articulate the reasons for the change and reassure the staff that there will not be a reduction in the level of medical care provided by the new hospitalist group. Surgeons who have relied on the hospitalists for inpatient consultative co-management need to be engaged. The emergency department physicians need to be aware of any change in the admitting process with the new hospitalist group. Consultants need to be confident that the new hospitalist group will not reduce the number of consults that they order.

The things you didn’t think about

Different hospitalist groups practice medicine differently and one cannot be simply substituted for another. Consideration need to be made about:

  • Who manages cardiopulmonary arrests? Stroke alerts?  RRTs (rapid response team alerts)? Not all hospitalists have experience managing these situations and may require additional training prior to starting coverage.
  • Who manages bedside procedures such as central venous catheters, lumbar punctures, and intubations? Increasingly, internal medicine residents are not being routinely trained in these procedures. Endotracheal intubation is a particular problem – fewer and fewer hospitalists perform them and so you will need to decide if anesthesiologists, emergency medicine physicians, or respiratory therapists will become responsible for airway management if the old hospitalists performed these but the new hospitalists do not.
  • How will physicians be contacted? Maybe the existing hospitalists prefer to use pagers but the new hospitalists use their cell phones or an app in the electronic medical record. Be sure that it is clear how nurses and other physicians contact the specific hospitalist managing any given patient.
  • Clean up the electronic medical record. Don’t leave an option for a consult or admission to be placed to the old hospitalist group once the new hospitalist group takes over. That order for a consult will not go anywhere and patient care could suffer.

Your quality metrics will take a hit

During the last month of the old hospitalist group, the doctors will be less motivated to help the hospital with things that matter to the hospital. Anticipate that the inpatient length of stay will go up, hour of discharge will be later in the day, patient satisfaction will go down, and quality events will increase. This will be particularly true if the hospital has to rely on a lot of locum tenens hospitalists in the last weeks before the transition. It is very similar to college students getting “senioritis” in the months just before graduation. You can partly preserve performance on these various quality metrics by developing a bonus plan to pay the physicians for their performance in the last couple of months of their contract.

Be collegial

When a hospital changes to a different hospitalist group or model, the current hospitalists are going to feel betrayed and devalued. The end of their employment at the hospital means the end of friendships with nurses, other physicians, and hospital staff. It may mean that they have to sell their houses and move to a new community. It may mean that they will be out of work for a few months while seeking a new job. It likely means an end to a job that they really liked and were passionate about.

These physicians need to be treated as the professionals that they are. Meet with them regularly. Volunteer to provide job references. Provide them access to continuing medical education such as hospital grand rounds for a few months. And most importantly, explain to them that it was a business decision and not because they are bad doctors. Who knows, you might want to hire that physician or hospitalist group again in the future.

There will often be non-compete clauses in their employment contracts so the hospital or new hospitalist group may not be able to hire them. For those hospitalists who are superstars, it may be worth trying to negotiate a buy-out for the non-compete contracts. It costs a surprisingly large sum of money to hire a new hospitalist when you consider paying for a search firm as well as interviewing, credentialing, and orienting the new hospitalist. You may have to pay moving expenses or medical school loan repayments. When all of these are considered, it may be cheaper to pay a $25,000 or $50,000 buy-out for a current hospitalist than to hire a new hospitalist.

Managing change is one of the main things that hospital leaders do and it can be time-intensive as well as emotionally draining. But by planning in advance and giving attention to detail, changing from one hospitalist model or group to another can happen smoothly and offer new opportunities for the hospital.

November 7, 2020