Hospitalists are there when you need them

Wednesday, July 20, 2005 at 1:00am

Spending time as a patient in a hospital can be a scary and frustrating experience, particularly when you are waiting to see and talk with your doctor, who is most often not on the premises.

Recognizing that patients often feel far removed from their physicians, the health care industry is initiating a solution. During the last decade, a new specialty called hospitalist has begun to catch hold in medical centers around the country. These doctors spend most of their time in a medical center making sure patients are looked after appropriately and that facility operations run efficiently.

Physicians that go into this field are typically educated in internal medicine and have chosen to concentrate on care of patients in a hospital, where they offer a much-needed personal touch.

"What often happens from a patient's perspective is their physician has a practice off the [hospital] premises," said Gene Fleming, president of Cogent Healthcare Inc., a company with offices in Brentwood that contracts hospitalists and other services to hospitals nationwide. "When the patient needs the services of their physician [during their hospital stay], they find he or she is not readily available," Fleming said.

That is where a hospitalist comes in. They are available 24 hours a day at many medical facilities, so patients can be attended to immediately, he added.

Not all hospitals have hospitalists, but their popularity is growing rapidly. Now estimated at approximately 6,000, their number is expected to grow to 30,000 by 2010, according to the Society of Hospital Medicine, a nonprofit association for the profession.

Locally, Saint Thomas Health Services' hospitals, including Saint Thomas, Baptist and Middle Tennessee Medical Center, use hospitalists.

"One of the reasons I moved to Murfreesboro was because Middle Tennessee Medical Center has hospitalists," said Dr. Michael MacQuarrie, who has a family practice in Murfreesboro. "Having them is better for me, better for the patient, and better for the hospital."

MacQuarrie said their presence is especially helpful because he can't always be available for his hospitalized patients. They also free him up to more efficiently run his regular practice.

The impact on hospitals is significant.

"The utilization of hospitalists influences a lot of things, such as reducing the patient's length of stay, reducing the cost of stay, and increasing the satisfaction level of both staff and patients," said Dr. Steven C. Smith, hospitalist and internal medicine physician at Middle Tennessee Medical Center.

His group of hospitalists also trains medical center staff during the day. "The nurses and other staff appreciate having a physician around," he said.

Families benefit too, he added, because a physician is available in-house to talk with them at critical times.

The fast-growing popularity of the profession has caused a shortage of qualified physicians in the field, which has encouraged the formation of organizations like Cogent to provide trained hospitalists.

It shouldn't be long before the shortage is alleviated, however, since hospital medicine is becoming the fastest growing medical specialty in the country.

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