TUESDAY, April 21 (HealthDay News) -- In an ideal world, your primary-care physician would be the one who directed your health care whether you were home or in the hospital, enhancing your comfort level.
But, in reality, that type of seamless care is on the decline -- at least for older Americans.
A new study found that among Medicare patients, continuity of care was lacking, with only about one-third of those hospitalized seen by their own physician while they were in the hospital.
"Patients should know that it is very unlikely that you will be taken care of by your outpatient physician during a hospitalization," said the study's lead author, Dr. Gulshan Sharma, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
According to the study, published in the April 22/29 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, continuity of care is comprised of three components:
These factors could be especially important for older patients who may have more chronic illness and may need a higher level of medical management and shared decision-making, according to the study.
"For patients, particularly geriatric patients with complex medical needs, continuity of care is probably ideal," said Dr. Laurie Jacobs, director of the Resnick Gerontology Center at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. "Given a choice, anyone would want someone they know, someone they trust and someone they've communicated with in the past. But it's not always medically necessary, even though it might be ideal."
Jacobs added that this kind of continuity of care isn't always possible in the current health-care setting. "From the physician and the health-system perspective, it's difficult to practice in an ideal fashion," she noted. She said fewer doctors are choosing to go into primary care and that reimbursement issues often limit physicians. Also, many medical centers have moved to a "hospitalist" model, where a doctor on staff at the hospital is in charge of a patient's care.
For the new study, Sharma and his colleagues reviewed a national sample of Medicare claims that included more than 3 million hospital admissions from 1996 through 2006. All of the participants were older than 66 years.
In 1996, the researchers found, 50.5 percent of people hospitalized were seen by at least one physician they had seen as an outpatient. By 2006, that number had dropped to 39.8 percent.
They also found that 44.3 percent of people who said they had a primary-care physician were seen by that doctor in a hospital in 1996. Ten years later, that percentage was down to 31.9 percent. People living in large metropolitan areas and those being seen in large teaching hospitals were the least likely to be seen by their primary care physician, according to the study.
Although people may assume their regular physician and the hospital doctors are in communication, Sharma said that's often not the case. "Post-discharge communication is very poor. It only occurs about 20 percent of the time," he said.
Both Sharma and Jacobs said the health-care system is shifting to the hospitalist model, and that electronic medical records would go a long way toward bridging the communication gap between outpatient and inpatient care.
For more on hospital care, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
SOURCES: Gulshan Sharma, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston; Laurie G. Jacobs, M.D., professor of clinical medicine, and division head, geriatrics, and director, Resnick Gerontology Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Medical Center, New York City; April 22/29, 2009, Journal of the American Medical Association