Acute Physicians: Hospitalists Bounded by Time and Space

By  |  October 7, 2011 |  11 

Besides studying patient safety and watching all five seasons of The Wire, my other major goal for my London sabbatical was to understand the way the Brits organize hospital care. Mirroring the U.S. hospitalist movement, a new field—called “acute medicine”— emerged about 15 years ago and became the country’s fastest growing specialty.

But there is a key difference: acute physicians are hospitalists working inside a smaller box, the acute medical unit. While the young field has enjoyed some striking successes, I recently spoke at its national conference and challenged acute physicians to be a bit more ambitious—to put a little more of the “disruptive” in their disruptive innovation.

To understand the different evolutionary paths of the U.S. and UK’s systems of hospital care, it’s important to understand the primordial seas from which hospitalists and acute physicians emerged. Whereas the U.S. hospitalist model has all-but-replaced a system in which the primary care physician was expected to be the physician-of-record in the hospital, the UK never had such a system. Instead, general practitioners in Britain have always confined their work to the outpatient world; patients in need of hospital care have been handed off to different physicians since the days of Alexander Fleming. But the traditional model has been for those physicians to be subspecialists, with patients admitted to wards run by consultants: the GI ward, the endocrine ward, the geriatrics ward, and so on.

There are clearly certain diseases—acute MI and stroke come to mind—in which such narrow, specialty-focused wards deliver better outcomes of care. But for the vast majority of hospitalized patients, who are rarely cooperative enough to have just one thing wrong with them, the requirement to pigeonhole patients into a specialty unit is problematic. A 2002 American study found that when patients happened to be cared for by the “wrong” specialist (the cardiology service, say, taking care of an asthma patient), both lengths of stay and mortality rates spiked.

It’s not just that patients usually have multiple things wrong with them. It’s that a system of many geographic subspecialty wards creates square peg/round hole problems up the wazoo. The ED needs to admit the GI bleeder, but the GI ward is full. Well, she has a remote history of COPD, so let’s put her on the pulmonary ward. Or, just hold her in the ED for a few more hours—a bed on GI should open up soon. You get the picture. What sounds like a perfectly sensible idea (who can argue against having patients cared for by the relevant specialist?) rapidly spirals into a chaotic, inefficient, and sometimes even dangerous mess. And so it was in the UK in the late 1990s.

It was at about that time, 1998 as I recall, that the Royal College of Physicians asked me to come over to describe this newfangled American hospitalist thing. This illustrates a key difference between the two countries: whereas the hospitalist movement in the U.S. grew without any major policy changes and with the begrudging support of professional societies like the ACP (at least in the early days), in the UK—with its centralized control of training slots and the overall organization of care—it was critical to get the Royal College, and ultimately the whole National Health Service, on board. It took a few more years, but then it happened.

In 2004, the Royal College issued a white paper entitled “Acute Medicine: Making it Work for Patients. A Blueprint for Organisation and Training,” which was a critical boost for the field. But this and other key reports didn’t limit their endorsement to a new specialty; they also promoted a new place: the Acute Medical Unit.

The idea behind the AMU was to defer the subspecialty ward decision for 2 to 3 days while patients were both acutely sick (or “acutely unwell,” as they say here) and often relatively undifferentiated. In other words, rather than being admitted directly to the subspecialty ward from the ED or the clinic, patients would go to the AMU for 48-72 hours, where a new “generalist-specialist” was needed to oversee care. The acute physician was born.

I chose Imperial College London for my sabbatical because Charles Vincent, the top patient safety expert in the UK, is here. But I got lucky, since the leader of acute medicine, Derek Bell, also happens to be on Imperial’s faculty. Derek is a lively Scotsman (he commutes back to his home in Edinburgh each weekend, which would be like working in New York while living in Boston) with the kind of charisma and fortitude one needs to launch a new specialty and survive the inevitable arrows in the back. In the late 1990s, Derek and several colleagues began a path that closely resembles the one we took in launching the hospitalist field: defining the specialty, forming a specialty society (the Society for Acute Medicine, SAM), doing the research (which has shown improved outcomes, shorter lengths of hospital stay, and improved patient satisfaction), and creating a core curriculum.

AMUs—and with them the field of acute medicine—were destined to expand, but the growth of the units and the specialty were turbocharged by a national policy launched in 2005. In typical fashion, the NHS decided that the best way to deal with the problems of ED overcrowding and long door-to-floor times was with a rule. The “Four-Hour Rule” requires that all patients leave the ED (either to go home or be admitted) within four hours of arrival. As you can imagine, one consequence of this new standard (which is vigorously enforced) was that it created a need to grow the AMU to accommodate patients who required more time in the ED but could no longer stay there. My UCSF colleague Ellen Weber has written about some of the unintended consequences of the rule. One consequence that was predictable was to make the acute physician, previously merely essential, now completely indispensable.

There are some important differences between Acute Medicine in the UK and Hospital Medicine in the US. Acute physicians largely limit their work to the AMU, meaning they have the benefit of a geographic unit (all their patients are in one place) but a far narrower reach than hospitalists: the 50% of patients who require hospital stays longer than 48 to 72 hours must be handed off to one of the subspecialty wards, a handoff that hospitalist systems avoid. The feel of an AMU (Derek has been nice enough to take me on rounds) is a morph of a U.S. step-down unit, an ED observation ward, and a full-on emergency department. The pace is brisk, the volumes high, and the transitions frequent—with dozens of new admissions and discharges (either home or to other units) every day. The number of acute physicians, while growing rapidly, remains far below that of hospitalists: while virtually every hospital in England has an AMU and acute physicians, the average group size is 3, and most programs cover only weekday daytimes. In contrast, most U.S. hospitalist groups have at least 10 physicians and some (including my own) have as many as 50, providing 24/7/365 coverage not only for sick medical patients but for many patients on other services (“co-management”).

Workforce constraints have been partly responsible for the limited growth of acute physicians. When the hospitalist field launched, there was a huge reservoir of general internists (and later, general pediatricians) ready to assume the new role, and the transition was as straightforward as saying “OK, I’m a hospitalist.” While hospitalists can now participate in fellowships and even obtain recognition of their focused practice via the new ABIM pathway, neither of these are requirements to join the field.

On the other hand, there are vanishingly few general internists in the UK. After a couple of foundational residency years, internal medicine types either shunt into GP training programs—which train exclusively for an outpatient role—or mixed IM/subspecialty programs. So the founders of acute medicine, all subspecialists qualified in other fields (Derek is a pulmonary/critical care physician), needed to establish a training pathway and a specialty designation, which they did successfully in 2003. While this training and certification requirement undoubtedly limits the field’s size, the field’s thought leaders (many of whom I met at least week’s annual SAM conference) are reluctant to lower the bar to entry. “We need to do rigorous specialty training to be credible with other specialists,” one told me. “I’d be reluctant to shorten it.”

Of course, he has a point. Because someone can self-declare as a hospitalist—and just as easily abandon the field for other types of generalist practice or to pursue a fellowship—our field has thousands of tire kickers, individuals who are hospitalists only as a way station for another destination. This comes at a cost, in terms of the specialty’s professionalism and its status in the eyes of others.

While acute physicians have embraced safety and quality work more than most UK physicians, I find that they still tend to think of it more in terms of the care of the patient in front of them than as system leaders. This is partly a symptom of something I’ve discussed before: the general passivity of UK physicians regarding their ability to influence the system (“Oh, the managers are in charge of that,” or “I’ll just wait for another NHS rule.”) In my closing address at last week’s conference, I urged the field to grab this area and run with it. One of the most important decisions we made in the early years of hospital medicine was to embrace the “two patients” mantra, namely, “I have two sick patients: the person in the bed and the system I work in. My job is to fix both.” While the landscape in the UK is very different than that of the US (with far more bureaucratic inertia to overcome), I still believe that acute physicians would do well to be—and be seen as—the MD leaders in systems improvement.

I also encouraged the acute physicians to carefully challenge the boundaries of their 48-72 hour AMU cage. Right now, they’re limited in their ability to do so by both workforce constraints (there aren’t enough trained acute physicians to expand their mission very much) and predictable political friction points with their subspecialty colleagues. And it may well be that, for some patients, transfer to a subspecialty service might be the best path. But for others, eliminating the need for a handoff and taking charge of the discharge transition seem like positive steps for patients, the NHS, and the acute medicine field.

I’m grateful to Derek Bell and his colleagues for giving me an opportunity to explore their exciting new field from the inside. Being at the SAM conference reminded me of the early days of our hospitalist field: seasoned and visionary leaders who had seen opportunity when others hadn’t, surrounded by hundreds of younger physicians excited to be part of something new, dynamic, and important. I look forward to seeing where the field goes in the coming years.


  1. Brad F
    Brad F October 8, 2011 at 1:11 am - Reply


    –How do the hospitals handle 24/7 coverage? Specialists cover nocturnal shifts, versus training programs or UK equivalent of midlevels?

    –Where do salaries line up for the acute medicine specialists as compared to GPs and specialists? This is especially germane given their track training as “non-GP’s.” Straight salary or FFS, P4P?

    –Finally, you made a curious comment about centralized control of the Royal College and the extra time it took to establish the specialty. Frankly, we could have used a bit of that 40 odd years ago when our system began to expand like a hydra, without any cohesive thought. While innovation and flexibility is a plus in many parts of USA system, workforce composition doesnt rank among them. Arguably, its enemy number one (or two, the payment system closely aligned), that propelled the chaos we have today. I would call that aspect of UK foot dragging a plus. They pay up front, but downstream may be more advantageous.


    • Bob Wachter October 8, 2011 at 8:00 am - Reply

      Thanks, Brad. Regarding your questions:

      1) The nights and weekends are largely covered by trainees, though this is getting trickier to pull off because their housestaff (“registrars”) are limited to 48 hours per week, in keeping with EU regulations. But residencies go on and on — to be a full-fledged attending, the average residency lasts about 10 years. This maintains a relatively healthy supply of inexpensive labor. The leaders of acute medicine really want to expand the coverage, but there just aren’t the numbers to do that yet.

      2) All hospital-based specialists make the same amount through their NHS contract. Yes, you heard me right, the neurosurgeons and the acute physicians are paid the same amount (the GPs work on a different scale, and make a little more!). By the way, this is not only specialty-agnostic but doesn’t vary across the country, despite the fact that living in London is about twice as expensive as living in Manchester.

      But there are salary differences that arise via private practice — most hospital-based specialists, at least in the big cities, practice a day or two a week in the private sector and can often double their salary doing that. Here is where the salary differences so familiar to us in the U.S. play out, since the proceduralists make much more doing this private practice work. To be honest, I’m not sure about private practice opportunities for the acute physicians, since most private hospitals are fairly small and kind of boutique-y.

      3) I agree that the UK’s workforce planning represents an advantage. As one example: the most popular specialty of IM here is… yes, geriatrics. How did they do that? Well, they opened up lots of geriatrics jobs and relatively few cardiology and GI jobs, and they also match the training slots to the available jobs. As you might expect, the bureaucracy doesn’t always get its central planning right, but at least it is given some real thought.

      From my time on the ABIM, I can tell you that we (and, I think, the other boards) aren’t casual about approving an application for a new specialty — we consider them long and hard, including the impact on existing specialties and the potential downside of further fragmentation. But once we’ve approved a new specialty, the market takes over and neither the boards, nor anyone else, has any control over the size of the field.

      As usual, the answer lies somewhere in the middle — I wouldn’t want to completely copy their central planning (which is a bit too rigid and often lags several years behind the real needs) but our Wild Wild West non-system has gotten us into serious trouble.

      — Bob

  2. AD October 8, 2011 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    “Of course, he has a point. Because someone can self-declare as a hospitalist—and just as easily abandon the field for other types of generalist practice or to pursue a fellowship—our field has thousands of tire kickers, individuals who are hospitalists only as a way station for another destination. This comes at a cost, in terms of the specialty’s professionalism and its status in the eyes of others.”
    It could not have been said better, no minimal standards of education or performance is the Achilles heel of the current hospitalist movement

  3. Chris Johnson October 8, 2011 at 5:41 pm - Reply


    Very interesting. I know it’s not your gig, but do you have any information about how do they handle children in the UK? Is there a similar acute care pathway for them? Since pediatric subspecialties are smaller — I can’t imagine, say, a peds GI ward except in a dedicated children’s hospital — is there a general pediatric service for the undifferentiated sick child?

    In the US, Community pediatricians in larger urban centers (and even smaller ones) are rapidly going the way of the internists, admitting their hospitalized patients to peds hospitalists.

  4. Mike Jones October 9, 2011 at 3:27 pm - Reply

    Bob, while not wishing to be too pedantic I just wanted to clarify a couple of points: the specialty was only recognised in 2009, until then we were a sub specialty of general internal medicine. I am really not sure that the generalist is vanishingly rare in British medicine. The training system we have means that most (but not all) physicians in acute specialties will train in both their specialty and general internal medicine. When appointed their job will determine whether their role in general medicine is retained or not. For many specialists working in large teaching hospitals the role in general internal medicine is often non existent but for those working in smaller so called district general hospitals the role is much greater. Acute Medicine grew from the ideas that a few of us had that patients presenting to the front door of the hospital should not be confronted by a physician who really did not want to be there but would far rather be involved in their specialty. The monopoly employer I.e. the NHS recognised that they wanted people run the AMUs far more actively and the specialty of Acute Medicine was eventually derived. General physicians do still take part in the acute medical take and indeed without them the UK system would not work. Te precise role of the acute physician is to ensure that the AMU works effectively and promote quality standards and quality improvement in that environment.
    You mention training time and there is a European minimum time for certain fields and for General internal Medicine this is five years specialty training. We are encouraging most trainees to gain their specialty certificate in both acute medicine and general internal medicine so that they do have the skills to manage patients beyond the 72 hours you mention.
    Your call to arms at the SAM meeting was welcome and I hope we as acute physicians can respond

  5. Bob Wachter October 9, 2011 at 8:24 pm - Reply

    Thanks to all. Re: Chris’s question, unfortunately I don’t know how they organize children’s hospital care here. If any of my UK friends could answer that one, it would be great.

    Re: Mike’s comments, first of all, thanks. Mike is one of the leaders of the acute medicine movement and we had a chance to spend some time together at the recent SAM conference. I appreciate the clarification regarding specialty recognition.

    As for the rest of the comments, our different perspectives stem partly from differences between the organization of training in the US and UK. In the US, training is somewhat more linear: one does 3 years of IM, and then either stops (and becomes a general internist) or continues with a subspecialty (generally about 3 more years, at which time the physician is eligible to take the boards in cardiology, GI, rheumatology, etc). While training in the UK is longer and more intertwined (ie, one does IM and cardiology, not IM then cardiology), the other issues are fairly similar: folks trained in subspecialties in the US are also trained in IM (it is a requirement to enter the subspecialty fellowship) and sometimes end up combining their practices, doing some of the subspecialty and some IM. But it is unusual for MDs not to gravitate toward their subspecialty as their preference, and their focus follows accordingly — they are far likelier to keep up with matters in their subspecialty through conferences and reading than they are in IM. I suspect the same is true here.

    Thanks too for your generous comments about my speech — I am learning many things here that I’m going to bring back to the States, and I hope a little of what I’ve learned and observed is helpful to folks practicing in the UK as well.

  6. […] I mentioned in a previous blog, the British system cleaves the world of primary care and everything else much more starkly than we […]

  7. The British Primary Care System and Its Lessons for America | Care And Cost November 30, 2011 at 6:34 am - Reply

    […] I mentioned in a previous blog, the British system cleaves the world of primary care and everything else much more starkly than we […]

  8. […] relevance to the UShealthcare system requires a little historical perspective.As I mentioned in a previous blog, the British system cleaves the world of primary care andeverything else much more starkly than we […]

  9. Bob Wachter February 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm - Reply

    Derek Bell and I wrote an article on our two fields — Hospital Medicine in the US and Acute Medicine in the UK — which was published today in the British Medical Journal.

  10. david January 9, 2013 at 8:01 pm - Reply

    The sooner the abim makes hospitalist a full specialty that requires passing the exam within 2 yrs of practice the safer patients will be in usa. There are so many unwanted casualties in us and uk care. The us situation can improve by 25 percent with the above measures. Uk will also improve once staffing is corrected. Residents have too much role in uk and the casualty is overwhelming. Hospital mortality can be controlled on both sides if correct measures are followed. I just hope that a full subspecialty in hospitalist medicine with be approved sooner than later. That will save more than 200000 lives every year in USA

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About the Author:

Robert M. Wachter, MD is Professor and Interim Chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, where he holds the Lynne and Marc Benioff Endowed Chair in Hospital Medicine. He is also Chief of the Division of Hospital Medicine. He has published 250 articles and 6 books in the fields of quality, safety, and health policy. He coined the term hospitalist” in a 1996 New England Journal of Medicine article and is past-president of the Society of Hospital Medicine. He is generally considered the academic leader of the hospitalist movement, the fastest growing specialty in the history of modern medicine. He is also a national leader in the fields of patient safety and healthcare quality. He is editor of AHRQ WebM&M, a case-based patient safety journal on the Web, and AHRQ Patient Safety Network, the leading federal patient safety portal. Together, the sites receive nearly one million unique visits each year. He received one of the 2004 John M. Eisenberg Awards, the nation’s top honor in patient safety and quality. He has been selected as one of the 50 most influential physician-executives in the U.S. by Modern Healthcare magazine for the past eight years, the only academic physician to achieve this distinction; in 2015 he was #1 on the list. He is a former chair of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and has served on the healthcare advisory boards of several companies, including Google. His 2015 book, The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age, was a New York Times science bestseller.


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