Editor’s note: Doximity Advisory Board member Peter Alperin, MD, is a
board certified internist currently practicing at the San Francisco VA Medical
Center
. He previously led informatics at Brown and Toland Medical Group,
and has also worked at Epocrates.

Last month, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a report
challenging the notion that hospitalist medicine is more cost-effective than
the traditional model of inpatient care. According to data culled from nearly
60,000 Medicare subscribers, patients receiving hospitalist treatment initially
experienced shorter stays and cost $282 less than those seen by primary care
physicians. Yet during the month following their discharge, those same patients
were more likely to be readmitted and averaged medical bills about $332 higher
than their counterparts–an overall net loss.

One of the compelling arguments in favor of using hospitalists has been that if
you have somebody on hand who is versed in inpatient medicine and can react to
information more quickly, better results will follow. For example a blood test
ordered at 8 AM can be responded to at 2PM, with subsequent therapy being
instituted more efficiently–ultimately leading to an earlier patient discharge.
Money is thereby saved. But this study poses a provocative question: By cutting
down the length of stay, are hospitalists short-circuiting that truism of
“tincture of time,” that it often just takes time for a patient to get better?
By completing the work more efficiently and discharging patients earlier, they
might simply be letting people out before they’re ready.

Another place to look for possible causes for these readmissions is the patient
handoff: Back in June, the American Medical Association blogged about a
perceived rise in handoff-related liability claims, citing a recent Archives
of Internal Medicine study
that highlighted significant disparities in
perceived communication among primary care doctors and specialists. For
example, 69.3% of PCPs say they nearly always notify specialists of patients’
histories–but only 34.8% of specialists report they receive them. While this is
far from conclusive, it warrants further investigation.

There’s no question that there are a lot more people involved in care now than
there have been before, and care itself is more complicated. Much of this has
to do with the fact that, today, many of the less acute cases are treated in
outpatient settings. This means that the patients who are admitted to acute
care hospitals are considerably sicker than they were 30 years ago, and the
need for specialized treatment is greater. Moreover, even when a specialist
might not be needed, there’s no disincentive on the part of a hospitalist
doctor to make such a referral. The referring physician loses none of his or
her own money on the arrangement. Indeed, it’s a move that diffuses individual
liability and might even be encouraged in the interest of ”relationship
management.”

Taking all these factors into consideration, I’d argue that the core problem
appears to revolve around misaligned incentives. Therefore, I’m predicting that
a key step toward ultimately rectifying these issues is the adoption of
integrated delivery networks such as the proposed Accountable Care
Organizations or other integrated organizations. We need to move to a model
where one health care organization is responsible for the entire continuum of
care–where no money will be saved by discharging people who are sicker and
physicians themselves have a stake in both the quality and financial well-being
of the system. ACOs and other moves towards clinical integration are steps in
the right direction but are only the beginning. We also need physicians trained
to work in these integrated systems, which they traditionally have not been–but
that is a topic for another day.