It is important to step back occasionally to survey where one has been and to plot a new heading. In an online Aug. 10, 2016, release, the New England Journal of Medicine posted two opinion pieces that provide perspective on hospital medicine. As is often the case when journalism presents two opinions, the viewpoints represent opposite ends of a spectrum and the truth lies somewhere in between.
In one essay, Robert Wachter, MD, and Lee Goldman, MD, highlight the successful growth of hospital medicine (N Eng J Med. 2016, Aug 10. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1607958). In just 2 decades, more than 50,000 physicians have changed their focus to the care of inpatients. The authors state that “many stars had to align” for hospital medicine to grow as rapidly as it has. I would argue instead that many talented leaders of the field have moved heaven and earth to create that alignment and birth this field.
In the other essay, Richard Gunderman, MD, focuses on what he sees as having been lost in this evolution (N Eng J Med. 2016, Aug 10. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1608289). I believe Dr. Gunderman’s viewpoint nostalgically longs for the good old days and a model of an interpersonal doctor-patient relationship that never really existed for a large portion of the population. If you were wealthy, lived most of your life in one location, and had only intermittent or common diseases, then perhaps you had a trusted general internist to provide your medical care and provide the emotional reassurance that nourished both patient and doctor. But in modern medicine, that scenario is uncommon. With large group practices, there is only a small chance that your personal physician will be on call on the night of your admission to a hospital. The next day, as test results and specialty consults trickle in, that personal physician will be trapped in a busy outpatient clinic and not truly available at hospital bedside in “your moment of greatest need,” as Dr. Gunderman phrased it. When your personal physician finally does make rounds, s/he will find the hospital environment inefficient and repeating the same small mistakes that happened to his/her last patient.
I’ve been writing about and teaching professionalism for years. I agree with Dr. Gunderman about the importance of a doctor-patient relationship. I believe reducing physicians to being automatons in a hospital assembly line would be a bad idea. But this essay’s rose-colored and sienna-colored portrait of that relationship is not helpful guidance in the modern world. Surveyors and navigators need sharp, clear vision.
Trade-offs are being made. Many pediatricians in affluent communities do have the opportunity to establish long-term relationships with families, sometimes for multiple generations of children. Those relationships attract medical students into pediatrics and family medicine. I was fortunate enough to establish many of those relationships when I practiced outpatient pediatrics. During my last interstate move, the man packing the picture frames was amused to find amidst my many diplomas a framed crayon drawing. It was a gift to me from a young patient. I told the mover that I would be sadder to have that drawing damaged than if a diploma was damaged in the move. So he wrapped it with extra padding.
Those bonds established with families make up the emotional sustenance throughout a career that justifies the years of sacrifice spent becoming a physician. There is no doubt that it is easier to form those bonds in outpatient pediatrics. At a community hospital, with 7 days on/7 days off scheduling, I usually provide care for the entire hospitalization of a child. That provides emotional satisfaction for both the parents and for me as a physician in ways that 12-hour shifts usually don’t.
The diminishment of those relationships needs to be acknowledged, but not to the exclusion of what a hospitalist can provide. When I practiced general pediatrics and only admitted 1 or 2 children each week, I was often frustrated by inefficiency and errors in the hospital, but I had little recourse for changing it. As a hospitalist admitting 500 patients per year, I can perform problem solving and devote resources to continuously improve the quality and safety of inpatient care. I provide those improvements to all patients admitted to the hospital, whether they have a medical home or not. That fosters social justice. As a function-over-fashion person, that success is emotionally rewarding, too.
Dr. Powell is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.