The Surgical Hospitalist

By  |  November 18, 2007 | 

In an article in this month’s Journal of the American College of Surgeons (with a companion cover piece in the ACS’s Bulletin), four of my surgical colleagues – and this internist, perhaps to add a “cognitive” spin – describe UCSF’s “surgical hospitalist” program. It is an impressive story.

When Dr. John Maa and his friends speak of a “surgical hospitalist,” they are referring to real-live surgeons – you know, the “sometimes wrong but never in doubt” types – taking on the role of inpatient generalists. They are not referring to another type of surgical hospitalist, the internist-hospitalist co-managing hospitalized surgical patients. That model, which I believe will be the source of much of the hospitalist field’s growth in the coming decade, will be the subject of a future posting. [We’re going to have to clean up this nomenclature; for now, you’ll be able to tell the two models of care apart because the surgeons will be the better looking ones, as shown in this BMJ study.]

Our surgical hospitalists station themselves in the hospital for a week at a time. For that hellish week, they are constantly available to the emergency department for consults. As a result, the average time between an ED consult request and their appearance in the ED was – I hope you’re sitting down – 16 minutes. Heck, I didn’t know the elevators were that fast! The ED docs and nurses were nearly euphoric with this responsiveness.

The team cared for patients with a wide variety of clinical problems, ranging from cholecystitis to bowel obstruction. When the patient needed an operation that the hospitalists felt was within their comfort zone (more than 90% of the time), they did the case, shortening the time from diagnosis to incision for appys by half. When the case was hyperspecialized or the patient had a longstanding relationship with another surgeon, they handed the patient off to a colleague. Although the service did receive some medical center support dollars, they also generated substantial new revenue through a marked increase in consultations.

There is a national shortage of general surgeons (as described in a commentary in this week’s JAMA), and the surgical hospitalist may be an important part of the solution. Their constant availability allows their colleagues to focus on their office practices or the OR without distraction, making everything work a little better. And it helps decompress the ED, mitigating another national crisis.

What are the downsides? I do worry about burnout – our surgical hospitalists seem to be in the hospital all the time – but Dr. Maa assures me that he and his compadres catch their breath during their non-hospitalist weeks (two weeks in three, spent in office practice and on academic pursuits), that they love what their doing, and that they enjoy the warm afterglow of a job well done. More importantly, they’ve added four new surgeons to the group this year, so things may work out.

The surgical hospitalist model extends my original concept of a hospital-based generalist who offers full-time availability, the ability to personally handle a wide variety of problems and coordinate the care of others, and a focus on improving both the care of individual patients and hospital systems. Like all medical innovations, it is bringing out the usual naysayers and skeptics. But I say let’s give it a try, measure its effect on key outcomes, and then decide whether it is a better mousetrap. I’m guessing it is.

And, to my brave surgical colleagues willing to buck tradition in one of healthcare’s most traditional fields, I can only say: Bravo!


  1. Rick December 17, 2007 at 8:17 pm - Reply

    I enjoyed reading the well-written entry entitled, “The Surgical Hospitalist.” Have you come across any surgical hospitalist programs utilizing surgeons that are no longer doing surgical procedures (e.g. due to physical disability)? They would be similar to “medical” hospitalists in that they would evaluate hospitalized patients and emergency room patients, but they would be patients with “surgical” problems. They would be helping their medicine and ER colleagues (quick response to consult requests) as well as their surgical colleagues (reduce “non-operative” consults, stay in office/O.R.).

  2. John Maa December 19, 2007 at 9:36 pm - Reply

    Currently, a number of hospitals across America are introducing surgical hospitalist programs to promote efficiency and quality improvement efforts. At this time I am unaware of a program where the surgeon does not perform surgical procedures—but I have heard discussions of emerging models where general surgeons could assist in the comanagement of neurosurgery and orthopedic surgery patients to address ED overcrowding and boarding. I believe that many variations of the current theme we have recently proposed will emerge across the nation to address local institutional needs.

  3. colsurgeon January 8, 2009 at 5:42 pm - Reply

    Dr. Chris Kosakowski, MD, started the first Surgical Hospitalist program in 2001 at Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa. Private practice surgeons in the area often boycotted hospitals, services, and payors at their whim, often leaving 10’s of thousands of patients without surgical specialists.

    Dr. Kosakowski, by integrating computer systems and billing systems, was able to cover 2 of the 3 hospitals in Santa Rosa (almost 200 beds), 2 ICUs, 2 emergency departments, general, vascular, sometimes specialty surgery (such as urology), and a wound care center. he did this with between 3 and 5 rotating surgeons, drawing on surgeons sometimes from regional hospitals, thereby integrating regional care.

    Dr. Kosakowski’s surgical hospitalist program provided care for much of Sonoma County that otherwise would not have had access to surgical care. He was very forward thinking and, like the model for Sutter Santa Rosa, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, a truly caring individual.

  4. Hospitalist Blog | My Health December 29, 2014 at 11:41 am - Reply

    […] The Surgical Hospitalist | Wachter’s World – Currently, a number of hospitals across America are introducing surgical hospitalist programs to promote efficiency and quality improvement efforts…. […]

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About the Author: Bob Wachter

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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