By the time Djigui Keita left the hospital for home, his follow-up appointment had been scheduled. Emergency health insurance was arranged until he could apply for public assistance. He knew about changes in his medication — his doctor had found less expensive brands at local pharmacy chains. And Mr. Keita, 35, who had passed out from dehydration, was cautioned to carry spare water bottles in the taxi he drove for a living.
The hourlong briefing the home-bound patient received here at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania was orchestrated by a hospitalist, a member of America's fastest-growing medical specialty. Over a decade, this breed of physician-administrator has increasingly taken over the care of the hospitalized patient from overburdened family doctors with less and less time to make hospital rounds — or, as in Mr. Keita's case, when there is no family doctor at all.
Because hospitalists are on top of everything that happens to a patient — from entry through treatment and discharge — they are largely credited with reducing the length of hospital stays by anywhere from 17 to 30 percent, and reducing costs by 13 to 20 percent, according to studies in The Journal of the American Medical Association. As their numbers have grown, from 800 in the 1990s to 30,000 today, medical experts have come to see hospitalists as potential leaders in the transition to the Obama administration's health care reforms, to be phased in by 2014.
Under the new legislation, hospitals will be penalized for readmissions, medical errors and inefficient operating systems. Avoidable readmissions are the costliest mistakes for the government and the taxpayer, and they now occur for one in five patients, gobbling $17.4 billion of Medicare's current $102.6 billion budget.
Dr. Subha Airan-Javia, Mr. Keita's hospitalist, splits her time between clinical care and designing computer programs to contain costs and manage staff workflow. The discharge process she walked Mr. Keita and his wife through can work well, or badly, with very different results. Do it safely and the patient gets better. Do it wrong, and he's back on the hospital doorstep — with a second set of bills.
"Where we were headed was not a mystery to anyone immersed in health care," said P. J. Brennan, the chief medical officer for the University of Pennsylvania's hospitals. "We were getting paid to have people in the hospital and the part of that which was waste was under the gun. These young doctors, coming into a highly dysfunctional environment, had an affinity for working on processes and redesigning systems."