Grand Junction, CO, was recently lauded in the news media and at a town-hall meeting with President Obama as "a health community that works" -- "-for controlling health care costs while maintaining high quality. Data from the Dartmouth Atlas and from the DAI Palliative Care Group show it to be an exemplary palliative care community as well, based on metrics such as lower rates of in-hospital deaths, fewer hospital readmissions, less reliance on ICU care and higher hospice enrollments. (For more information on DAI's palliative care community metrics, see www.DAIpalliativecaregroup.com.)
"We can't take all of the credit," quips Dr. Amy Mohler, a board-certified hospice and palliative physician and the Chief Medical Officer of Hospice and Palliative Care of Western Colorado (HPCWC). The local medical culture emphasizes the role of primary care physicians. Grand Junction's non-profit hospitals and health plan came together 16 years ago to establish HPCWC as hospice provider for the entire community. "Those entities have been in Grand Junction for decades, and our medical culture has grown from the ground up. But for the past 16 years, HPCWC has been an integral part of that system," Dr. Mohler says. "I see great collaborative relationships here, and our local physicians are very open to our palliative expertise and to getting calls from us whenever we see opportunities to improve our patients' symptoms and quality of life." The hospice's census has grown to 250 in a metropolitan area of less than 140,000 people. HPCWC also offers in-hospital and community-based palliative care consultations, community bereavement services, grief programs for children and teens, and a cadre of 1,200 volunteers. It also operates three satellite hospice teams an hour or more from Grand Junction. "Grand Junction is like the poster child for primary care, and this is fertile ground to be passionate about your work," says HPCWC CEO Christy Whitney. "Even before our hospice existed, there was a very active non-profit HMO, Rocky Mountain Health Plans, that closely monitored hospital days. But I believe we have helped considerably to lower hospital days at the end of life, which means lower end-of-life costs. Having excellent hospice physicians who are available for teaching other physicians has also helped us make inroads."
Scheduling, Compensation and Call
Dr. Mohler and two physician colleagues work full-time for HPCWC, dividing up medical responsibilities for 12 hospice interdisciplinary teams based in home settings, nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Four days a week, Dr. Mohler sees patients at the hospice's freestanding 13-bed inpatient unit, which opened last October. The other doctors put in four-day work weeks heavily tilted toward direct patient visits, which are scheduled and geographically bunched by an administrative assistant. They generally make four or five home care or six to eight facility-based visits per day, and the local geography does not impose long driving times. "We try to get all of our new hospice patients seen early in their admission, especially since we see 30 percent of them for seven days or less," Dr. Mohler says. Each physician spends about an hour a week on interdisciplinary team meetings, with each team coming together every other week for a tightly structured reporting format to get through 20 to 25 patients within 30 minutes. "We used to be quite fantastic about allowing the IDT to run for hours, which wasn't helpful to anybody," Dr. Mohler says. Regular contacts between IDT meetings include "mini-team" updates and frequent phone calls. This year HPCWC implemented a productivity model for compensating its staff physicians, based on their billable visits, with a base salary to cover essential administrative activities. "I think everyone is happier with it, in terms of their workload. If they want to make more money, they know they can work harder and make more visits. If they like their balance of quality of life versus workload, that's okay too. The expectations are clearer and there's a feeling of shared responsibility," Dr. Mohler says. Between them, the three doctors also divide up evening on-call coverage, "physician-of-the-day" responsibilities, including first response for palliative care consultations, and three-day weekend call, including daily patient visits at the inpatient care center. The three-day weekend shift is designed to give the doctor on call more time to acclimatize to the needs of those patients. That may seem like a lot of call responsibilities, especially with the spectacular scenery of Western Colorado so close at hand. But it really isn't as bad as it sounds, Dr. Mohler says. "We find the schedule is still reasonable, because of the emphasis on primary care physicians in this community, their investment in what happens to their patients, and our commitment to supporting that relationship. That translates, when we are on call, into serving more as specialists consulting on their patients, so that our responsibilities aren't such a huge deal," she explains. "Our staff knows that when something is going on with a patient, their first line of help is the primary care physician. They still may call me to spend a few minutes running through the scenario and what might be most helpful for the patient, before they call the physician. I tell the nurses they need to know what they want to ask for from the doctor in a given clinical situation before they place that call." Still, the hospice is finding that three physicians are not enough to cover everything that needs to be done, especially since a nurse practitioner who made most of the in-hospital palliative care consultation visits moved away earlier this year. "When you are the doc of the day, you're in the hot seat. You may get the consultation call that comes in at ten minutes before five. But we're not doing a huge volume of inpatient palliative care consultations right now. We also have a community-based nurse and social worker palliative care team that uses more of a case management model, with a current census of 58," she says.HPCWC hospice teams in the three satellite offices draw upon local community physicians in part-time or volunteer roles to staff their hospice teams. The three full-time hospice doctors in Grand Junction are HPM-certified, but the four part-time satellite physicians, who have full-time clinic practices in internal medicine or family practice, are not. The satellite team physicians don't make many home visits. "If there are complex patients who need to be seen, we try to make special arrangements for seeing them out of this office," Dr. Mohler says. The agency also has a medical suite available at its inpatient unit to see patients who may be in central Grand Junction for other medical services. Dr. Mohler would like to have more time for visiting the satellite sites and working hands-on with their physicians and teams, rather than doing that by phone and email. Current plans are to recruit a fourth full-time physician for HPCWC while perhaps involving other Grand Junction physicians in on-call coverage and encouraging the satellite office physicians to enhance their palliative care skills through occasional shifts at the inpatient unit.
A Representative of Hospice
Although Dr. Mohler's job is largely clinical, covering the inpatient unit Monday through Thursday, Friday is spent in the hospice office on administrative functions. These include supervising the other physicians, participating in quality improvement activities and on the hospice's senior leadership team, teaching in a local family practice residency program, staff teaching, educating the local physician community and the public about hospice care, and "quite a lot of social networking as a representative of hospice."
"We have made a big investment in physician services. At our best we cover only 50 percent of medical costs from billing revenues," Whitney says. "But we decided to make that commitment, and having Amy, with her geriatric background, has been fabulous for our patients. My feeling is that hospice and palliative medicine is a specialty. Having our physicians available by phone supports our nurses, who sometimes have a hard time reaching the attending physician when they're out in the field. It brought a higher standard of care to our patients, and it gives us the opportunity to truly practice evidence-based medicine."
Dr. Mohler has been with HPCWC for seven years and its Chief Medical Officer, a position created to oversee the medical care provided by the other hospice physicians, for the past 18 months. An Arizona native, she trained as an internist and did a geriatrics fellowship at Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix. "I always knew that I would do geriatrics and, specifically, long-term care. But I became interested in end-of-life care during my residency," she says. "I spent so much time in the hospital and ICU and attended so many deaths there that I just felt there had to be a better way."
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