Scenario: Yesterday you saw a 6-month-old infant with what appeared to be viral gastroenteritis and mild dehydration. When you called his parents today to check on his condition he was not improving despite your recommendations about his diet and oral rehydration. Should you have him brought to your office for a reevaluation, have his parents take him to the local emergency department for evaluation and probable hospital admission, or ask his parents to take him to the hospital telling them that you will call and arrange for a direct admission.
Obviously, I haven’t given you enough background information to allow you to give me an answer you are comfortable with. What time of day is it? Is it a holiday weekend? What’s the weather like? How far is it from the patient’s home to your office? To the emergency department? How is the local ED staffed? Are there hospitalists? What is their training?
Whether or not you choose to see the patient first in the office, is direct admission to the hospital an option that you are likely to choose? What steps do you take to see that it happens smoothly?
At least one-quarter of the unscheduled pediatric hospitalizations begin with a direct admission, meaning that the patients are not first evaluated in that hospital’s ED. In a recent policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Hospital Care explored the pluses and minuses of direct admission and issued a list of seven recommendations. Among the concerns raised by the authors are “potential delays in initial evaluation and treatment, inconsistent admission processes, and difficulties in determining the appropriateness of patients for direct admission.” The committee makes it clear that they understand each community has it own strengths and challenges and the unique needs of each patient make it difficult to define a set of recommendations that fits all.
However, as I read through the committee’s seven recommendations, one leapt off the screen as a unifying concept that should apply in every situation. Recommendation No. 2 reads, “[There should be] clear systems of communication between members of the health care team and with families of children requiring admission.”
First, who is on this “health care team”? Are you a team member with the hospital folks – the ED nurses and doctors, the hospitalists, the floor nurses? Do you share an employer? Are you in the same town? Have your ever met them face to face? Do you do so regularly?
I assume you call the ED or the pediatric floor to arrange a direct admit? Maybe you don’t. I can recall working in situations where several infamous “local docs” would just send the patients in with a scribbled note (or not) and no phone call. Will you be speaking to folks who are even vaguely familiar with you or even your name? Do you get to speak with people who will be hands on with the patient?
Obviously, where I’m going with this is that, if you and the hospital staff are truly on the same health care team, communication should flow freely among the members and having some familiarity allows this to happen more smoothly. It can start on our end as the referring physician by making the call personally. Likewise, the receiving hospital must make frontline people available so you can speak with staff who will be working with the patient. Do you have enough information to tell the family what to expect?
Of course legible and complete records are a must. But nothing beats personal contact and a name. If you can tell a parent “I spoke to Martha, the nurse who will meet you on the floor,” that can be a giant first step forward in the healing process.
Most of us trained at hospitals that accepted direct admit patients and can remember the challenges. And most of us recall EDs that weren’t pediatric friendly. Whether our local situation favors direct admission or ED preadmission evaluation, it is our job to make the communication flow with the patient’s safety and the family’s comfort in mind.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, Dr. Wilkoff reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.