Is a hospitalist career for you?

October 23, 2009

The hospitalist career path is among medicine's fastest growing specialties.

In 1988, when he finished his internal medicine residency, John R. Nelson, MD, took a "temporary" job taking care of inpatients. Now, 21 years later, Nelson directs the hospitalist program at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue, Washington, and is a national practice consultant. And hospitalist work, a mere blip on the medical profession's radar in the late 1980s, is among medicine's fastest growing specialties.

In the mid-1990s when the term "hospitalist" was first coined, fewer than 500 non-emergency medicine physicians confined themselves to acute care settings. According to the Society of Hospital Medicine, the number of physicians who devote themselves primarily to inpatient care is expected to reach 30,000 in 2010. Hospitalists are in almost 60 percent of U.S. hospitals.

Most hospitalists are certified in internal medicine; smaller percentages are family physicians or pediatricians. The American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Board of Medical Specialties are working on a hospital medicine certification program, which is likely to be ready in 2010-2011. Hospitalists are increasingly viewed as specialists who do inpatient medicine, says Donna Knapp, chief operating officer of Sierra Hospitalists, a 20-physician practice in Reno, NV.

What accounts for the rise of hospitalists? Internist Patrick J. Cawley, chief medical officer at the Medical University of South Carolina, and immediate past president of the Society of Hospital Medicine, cites several reasons:

HOSPITAL MEDICINE VS. OUTPATIENT PRACTICE

"Becoming a hospitalist is like dating a practice, and joining an outpatient practice is more like marriage," says Nelson. The former is characterized by interesting and ever-changing patient encounters, while the latter benefits from a long-term commitment and relationships with patients. And a hospitalist's day is ruled by the pager, while a non-hospitalist's day is ruled by the clock, Nelson says. Office doctors must try to see patients close to their scheduled appointment time. Hospitalists aren't as constrained by a schedule.

Hospitalist practice, Cawley notes, is especially suitable for physicians who are comfortable in the hospital, who want to see patients with acute medical issues, who don't mind working nights and weekends, and who can handle unpredictability. "If you prefer a structured workday, you probably should stay in the office," Knapp says.

Hospitalists need to communicate with patients quickly and easily. "The responsibility to listen carefully may be greater for hospitalists than for other types of physicians," says Knapp. "While primary care physicians most likely treat patients they've seen several times, a hospitalist is almost always starting from scratch."

Any career has its drawbacks, of course. For hospitalists, these include trading long-term physician-patient relationships for brief encounters. Moreover, because hospitalists typically are part of a team, they don't have the same autonomy as private practice physicians.

According to many hospitalists and their advocates, however, the negatives are outweighed by the positives: