Dec. 5, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 5

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    ‘Hospitalists,’ a new medical specialty, reduce mortality, cut costs, study shows

    By John Easton
    Medical Center Public Affairs

    Physicians who concentrate on hospital care produce better results than the general internists who have traditionally managed hospital stays, a study by University researchers showed.

    The study, published in the Tuesday, Dec. 3 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that “hospitalists” can reduce short-term mortality, decrease hospital stays and cut costs. The benefits, though modest at first, increased as the hospitalists–a relatively new specialty–gained experience.

    In the first half of the two-year study, patients cared for by hospitalists stayed in the hospital about one-third of a day less than those cared for by internists. By the second year, the difference increased to half a day, which reduced costs by an average of $782 per patient.

    More important, in the second year, short-term mortality fell by 37 percent. Six percent of the patients cared for by internists died within 30 days, but only 4.2 percent of the hospitalists’ patients died within 30 days.

    “Study after study has demonstrated a close relationship between volume and outcome for surgical procedures,” said David Meltzer, Associate Professor in Medicine and an associated faculty member in the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies and Economics, and the lead author of the study.

    “Our findings, for the first time, extend this phenomenon to hospitalized patients with common medical conditions, those usually cared for by general internists.”

    The study involved 6,511 patients admitted to the general medical service at the University Hospitals between July 1, 1997, and June 30, 1999. Every fourth day, new patients were assigned to the care of one of two hospitalists. A pool of 58 general internists cared for patients admitted on the other three days. Patients in both groups were similar.

    The two hospitalists rapidly accumulated experience caring for the specific needs of hospitalized patients. Alternating with each other every month, they spent six months a year devoted to the care of hospitalized patients. Each of the 58 general internists, on the other hand, devoted a much smaller percentage of his or her time to hospital care. They continued to see other patients in the outpatient setting and spent two months or less each year caring for patients in the hospital.

    The differences between the two groups slowly emerged over the course of the study. The average length of stay for all patients during this period fell by nearly half a day, from 5 to about 4.5 days, but inpatient stays de-

    creased more for patients cared for by hospitalists. In the second year of the study, patients cared for by internists stayed for an average of 4.59 days while those cared for by hospitalists left after an average stay of 4.1 days.

    The study demonstrated that hospitalists also reduced costs. While average adjusted costs per patient increased by $100 for the generalists’ patients from year one to year two, costs fell by $629 for the hospitalists’ patients, for a total difference in year two of $782 per patient. Even in this small trial, the total savings produced was more than $600,000.

    Hospitalists also produced significantly better survival rates in the second year. At 30 days, six percent of the internists’ patients had died, compared to only 4.2 percent of those cared for by hospitalists. At 60 days, most of the difference persisted: 8.8 percent of the internists’ patients had died but only 6.8 percent of the hospitalists’ patients had died.

    Hospitalists also had slightly lower rates for in-hospital mortality (1.9 percent vs. 2.2 percent), 30-day emergency department visits (7.6 percent vs. 8.2 percent) and 30-day re-admission rates (10.8 percent vs. 12.2 percent).

    The researchers attribute most of these gains, which continued to mount during the second year of the study, to the increased experience of the hospitalists in handling the hospital care of patients with specific diseases.

    “It shows,” they noted, “that even experienced clinicians can benefit from greater experience treating conditions that they regularly encounter.”

    “We need to be cautious,” Meltzer added, “because this study examined only two hospitalists at a single institution.” A larger, multi-center study is now underway.

    Additional authors of the paper include Willard Manning, Jeannette Morrison, Manish Shah, Lei Jin, Todd Guth and Wendy Levinson. The University Hospitals, the Charles E. Culpeper Foundation, the National Institute of Aging and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded the study.