The term hospitalist, first described in 1996, is a relatively new specialty in medicine. A hospitalist is a physician who is trained in primary care, but instead of caring for patients in an office or clinic, the hospitalist specializes in the care of patients while they are in the hospital.
Traditionally, primary care physicians followed their patients' care from the office through any hospital stays. As the patient population has become more medically complex, so has the need for an available physician to be based at a hospital and provide rapid attention to the acutely ill patient. Because the hospitalist has fewer distractions from inpatient care, he or she is readily available to respond to moments of concern and medical emergencies.
Most hospitalists are board-certified internists (internal-medicine physicians) who have had the same training as other internal medicine doctors, including medical school, residency training and board certification examination. Some hospitalists are family-practice doctors or medical subspecialists who have opted to practice only in the hospital.
When a patient requires a hospital stay, admitted either from a doctor's office or from the emergency room, the hospitalist is contacted to coordinate the admission. The hospitalist assumes the role of primary provider within the boundaries of the hospital and communicates with the patient's referring physician. The hospitalist reviews the patient's previous medical records and combines that information with the patient's new symptoms and recent data to identify a diagnosis and initiate a plan of treatment.
Just as important as interpreting the patient's medical data is establishing a personal relationship with the patient that encourages confidence and trust. The stress of being sick enough to be in the hospital makes anyone feel scared. Previously, the familiarity of the primary physician helped to ease such fears. A hospitalist works to minimize the stress by providing a service that is accurate and compassionate.
Because hospitalists are accessible and work side-by-side with other staff, they can make the patient's stay efficient. Hospitalists coordinate the care of other specialists and diagnostic tests. The ultimate goal of the hospital stay is to make a diagnosis, educate the patient about an illness, then design and finally deliver a plan that promotes patient healing and comfort.
Once the patient is ready to be discharged, the hospitalist transitions the care of the patient to a rehabilitation center or to home under the direction of their primary provider.