If a hospital stay is in your future, don't be surprised if you're cared for by a type of doctor you've never heard of: A hospitalist.
Unlike traditional doctors, this new breed of physician doesn't see patients away from a hospital. The hospitalist's sole responsibility is to care for hospitalized patients, from admission to discharge, hence the name Hospitalist.
While the general public may not yet be aware of them, these specialists belong to the fastest growing field in medicine, said Larry Wellikson, M.D., CEO of the Society of Hospital Medicine.
Not all that long ago, there were only a few thousand hospitalists in the entire country. Now, there are more than 20,000 practicing hospitalists.
â€œAnd it's plausible that within a decade every hospital will have at least one hospitalist on staff,â€ said Dr. Wellikson.
Barton Memorial Hospital currently has three full-time and two part-time hospitalists on staff. They include physicians Amy Haase, Mairi Leining and
Oliver Medzihradsky. Working part-time are doctors Gary Cooper and Andrew Tang. Dr. Cooper also sees patients in his office part-time but he is not accepting new patients. Dr. Tang is part of Tahoe Medical Group Internal Medicine and he sees patients at his Stateline office Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. He also accepts new patients in his private practice.
Aside from doctors Cooper and Tang, hospitalists generally practice exclusively on-site. And hospitalists are typically hired directly by hospitals to monitor their patients' conditions, order diagnostic tests, make treatment decisions with input from primary care doctors and coordinate patient care among all members of the hospital staff.
Their surge in popularity is fueled by several factors:
* Hospitalists - most of whom are either trained as internists or pediatricians - become especially skilled at treating health problems common among hospitalized patients such as pneumonia, infections, heart attacks and congestive heart failure.
* Hospitalists are readily available to their patients. Because they are hospital based, hospitalists can respond quickly whenever a patient or family member has a question or concern. This contrasts with traditional doctors, who often see their hospitalized patients only during morning or evening rounds.
* Because they are near their patient's bedside, hospitalists can recognize and react quickly to any changes in their patient's condition, which is a real advantage.
â€œIn terms of treatment, patients are simply better off when doctors can check on them several times a day,â€ said Dr. Wellikson.
Research suggests that hospitalists improve the overall quality of patient care.
â€œThere have been more than 100 studies published on the impact of hospitalists and the results are generally quite positive,â€ said Dr. Wellikson. â€œMost studies show that hospitalists help reduce the risk of medical errors, reduce the length of patient stays and reduce hospital costs.â€
He offers this example of how a hospitalist might do all of these things:
â€œLet's say you're admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. Your own doctor might see one or two cases of pneumonia a month as part of his or her office practice, but a hospitalist might easily see dozens. Along with this extra experience treating your condition, a hospitalist can check on you regularly and share all pertinent information with your doctor. So chances are, you will get better sooner and have fewer complications,â€ said Dr. Wellikson.