What Is a Hospitalist?
Many medical specialties involve treating a particular part of the body. A cardiologist, for example, treats the heart, and a dermatologist treats the skin. Other specialists treat a particular disease, for example an oncologist treating cancer. For hospitalists, on the other hand, what they treat is less significant than where they provide treatment—in the hospital.
What is a hospitalist? A hospitalist is a physician who cares for patients who have been hospitalized. But a hospital is a place filled with doctors. Is it necessary to have a particular type of doctor that specializes in this work?
Why do hospitals use hospitalists? To understand the need for hospitalists, think of your average primary care provider, like a family doctor. Most people see a primary care physician for the vast majority of their medical needs. That doctor will treat many conditions and prescribe medications, referring the patient to specialists when more specialized care is needed. All of these medical professionals provide important care, but it’s the primary care provider that knows the patient best and takes the lead in coordinating treatment.
Now imagine a patient admitted to a hospital. The patient will see a number of specialists, nurses, and technicians on their path to recovery and discharge. But who will be the quarterback of their care team? The hospitalist.
There’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of hospital medicine as a specialty. The reason why is that it is one of the newest medical specialties. The term hospitalist was just coined in 1996. But since that time, hospitalists have been making a huge impact. The rise of the hospitalist has been associated with a more efficient hospital experience, improved outcomes, and reduced length of stay. In fact, according to the Society for Hospital Medicine, the involvement of a hospitalist can reduce the length of a hospital stay by 20 percent.
WHAT DOES A HOSPITALIST DO?
A hospitalist provides general medical care in a hospital setting. In a typical hospital stay, a patient may encounter any number of doctors, other specialists, nurses and technicians. But the hospitalist may be the only one to follow the patient through the entirety of the hospital experience—from intake, through critical care, to convalescence and discharge.
The hospitalist serves as the leader of the patient’s care team, coordinating the other players. A hospitalist might examine the patient on intake, order tests, coordinate treatment, and even prescribe medication. The hospitalist’s first-hand knowledge of hospital policy can help ease the patient through the hospital experience.
Hospitalists see the same types of cases over and over, quickly becoming experts in the kinds of problems that land patients in the hospital. They become adept at treating complex cases, involving multiple health conditions acting in concert.
Following a patient through the entirety of hospital care puts the hospitalist in a unique position to serve as patient advocate. The hospitalist can help communicate the patient’s needs and desires to other medical staff. The hospitalist can also assist the patient in making decisions based on input from the various members of the care team.
Because their work touches every aspect of the hospital experience, hospitalists are also well positioned to analyze hospital systems and fix institutional problems. Many hospitalists thus become champions of improvements within the hospital system. Perhaps more than any other specialty, hospital medicine also helps to prepare doctors for roles in hospital administration.
HOW to BECOME A HOSPITALIST
The first step to becoming a hospitalist is to obtain a four-year undergraduate degree. The next step is four years of education at a quality medical school, such as American University of the Caribbean (AUC) School of Medicine.
After medical school, aspiring hospitalists must complete three years of residency, practicing medicine under the close watch and tutelage of expert physicians. Hospitalists tend to choose a residency in internal medicine, general family medicine, or pediatrics.
The final step is completing a board certification exam in hospital medicine, offered by an organization such as the American Board of Physician Specialties. All told, a hospitalist’s education may take around 11 years.
MEET A HOSPITALIST
Christine Warner, MD, a 2015 graduate of AUC, is a hospitalist at Mercy Medical Center, Cedar Rapids, IA. We asked Dr. Warner to describe the role of a hospitalist.
Q: Why did you decide to go into your specialty?
A: I actually knew from my first year of residency that I wanted to become a hospitalist. Although the challenge of caring for acutely ill patients in the hospital setting could be daunting as a resident, I found that the greater challenge brought with it greater opportunities for learning and making a difference in patients' lives.
Q: Any advice to medical students considering the specialty?
A: Hospital medicine is a great specialty to consider if you are looking to treat a variety of complex patients in a setting with a higher acuity than the traditional primary care clinic. If you enjoy being challenged and constantly learning new things, hospital medicine is a great choice.
Q: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
A: Medicine is always a team sport, and nowhere is this more true than in the hospital. Dealing with a pandemic during my first year in practice was not what I expected, but I have been so inspired to see how the whole healthcare team has come together to provide the best possible care for our patients even during challenging times.
YOUR CAREER AS A HOSPITALIST
Hospital medicine is among the more patient-focused specialties, so a hospitalist should be passionate about seeing and helping patients. It is a position that requires plenty of people skills in addition to medical expertise.
A hospitalist must also thrive in the busy environment of a modern hospital. Hospital care is an around-the-clock responsibility, so the hospitalist should expect to work some night and weekend rotations.
Hospital medicine is a relatively new field, giving hospitalists the opportunity to make a genuine difference. Hospitalists have pioneered improvements in patient safety, hospital administration, and end-of-life care, to name just a few areas.
Hospitalists may enjoy more variety in their work than many other specialties. They see a diversity of cases, both common and rare, affecting various parts of the body. In addition to patient care and administration, many hospitalists are involved in research and teaching.
The job outlook for hospitalists is good. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for all physicians are expected to grow by 4 percent from 2019 to 2029. As practitioners of a fairly new and growing specialty, hospitalists may be in particularly short supply and thus, high demand. According to a survey by the Society of Hospital medicine, 11 percent of hospitalist jobs remain unfilled. Job growth among hospitalists is driven by the need to reduce medical errors, help hospitals handle a growing patient load more efficiently, and improve end of life care for an aging population.
Now that you know the answer to the question, “What is a hospitalist?” are you ready to pursue a career revolutionizing the hospital experience? Your journey could begin at AUC School of Medicine. Apply for admission to AUC.