THURSDAY, Dec. 20 (HealthDay News) -- A new breed of medical specialists, called hospitalists, can make a small but significant difference in shortening how long a patient needs to stay in the hospital, a new study shows.
The 2002-2005 study of almost 77,000 hospital stays at 45 centers showed that treatment by a hospitalist, rather than a general internist, resulted in about a half-day reduction in overall hospital stays on average, along with an average $268 drop in costs.
At the same time, researchers found no difference in the rate of either patient death or readmission when hospitalists were involved, according to the report in the Dec. 20 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
A hospitalist refers to a physician who cares solely for hospitalized patients.
The term may be new to the general public, but, in the medical profession, "hospitalist has been a recognized and accepted term that has been around for about a decade," said study author Dr. Peter K. Lindenauer, an associate professor of medicine at Baystate Medical Center and Tufts University, in Boston.
In fact, "There is a Society of Hospital Medicine with 5,000 to 10,000 members, and it is estimated that there may be 20,000 hospitalists across the United States now," Lindenauer said.
"What you can't debate is the number of hospitalists around the country -- there is no going back," added Dr. Laurence McMahon, chief of the division of general medicine at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor.
"We need to think about how these new doctors get into the health-care system and how they care for patients who are hospitalized," said Mcmahon, who also authored an accompanying editorial on the issue.
Traditionally, a person's private physician has been responsible for care after hospitalization, he said. That began to change about 30 years ago, with the emerging role of emergency room physicians and critical care physicians, Lindenauer said. "They have been assuming the role of attending physician in those situations," he said. "In some respect, the growth of the hospitalist model of care represents the completion of a series of steps toward specialization that began 30 years ago."
According to Lindenauer, the advent of the hospitalist means another question should be asked when individuals choose a private physician: Will that doctor turn over care to a hospitalist, if and when someone needs hospital care?
"It is a discussion that a patient should have with a primary-care physician when he is thinking about enrolling with that physician," Lindenauer said.
The differences shown in the study -- a shortening of length-of-stay by 0.4 days, on average -- are not great, he acknowledged, but they do add up over time.
"Shortening the length of stay by 0.4 days is small, but when you multiply it out over time by thousands of physicians, the effects can be very large. With 5,000 cases a year, [that's] a savings of 2,000 bed-days," he said.
The study was not able to assess patient satisfaction with treatment by a hospitalist rather than a primary-care physician, Lindenauer said, "But we know that efficiency is important, as important to patients as to physicians." he said.
And while full official recognition of the hospitalist speciality is yet to come, the Society of Hospital Medicine is working closely with the of American Board of Medical Specialties toward such an end, Lindenauer said.
"The differences between hospitalists and other doctors who take care of patients in hospitals are pretty minor," McMahon said. "What really is quite revolutionary is the change in how we take care of patients in the hospital."
There's more on hospitalists at the Society of Hospital Medicine.
SOURCES: Peter K. Lindenauer, M.D., associate professor of medicine, Tufts University, Boston; Laurence McMahon, M.D., chief, division of general medicine, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Dec. 20, 2007, New England Journal of Medicine