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Humboldt General Hospital has embarked upon a new era in patient care.

Starting February 1, a group of four physicians began providing 24-hour, 7-day-a-week care to all patients admitted to the hospital.

The physicians, called hospitalists, are part of a Las Vegas-based physician group called Rural Physicians Group. Each physician will provide care at HGH for approximately one week each month.

According to HGH CEO/Administrator Jim Parrish, the physicians are a welcome addition to the HGH team.

"These four doctors will become part of the HGH family," he said. "They will work hand in hand with all our staff members as well as our physicians."

He continued, "We want the community to come to know them and to have confidence in them; the care they provide is going to be wonderful for those who are in need."

The Humboldt County Hospital District Board of Trustees approved contracting with the group at its December 30 meeting. Dr. Sukh Pannu, who represented the company, said physicians will be available to patients and their families around the clock. As patient families leave the hospital, they will be provided with a cell phone number they can call day or night to address any concerns or questions.

Additionally, the hospitalist physicians will be able to discharge patients when their care is complete instead of waiting until their local physician makes his or her rounds.

For local physicians, the hospitalist proposal is a win-win as well. Winnemucca doctors may choose to continue to see a patient who is admitted to the hospital, or they may turn a patient's hospital care over to the Rural Physicians Group team. Local doctors may even choose to be employed by Rural Physicians Group as hospitalists themselves.

"We just wanted to provide some choices for our local doctors," said Parrish, "while ensuring the best care possible for our in-patients."

Parrish said it has become increasingly difficult for local doctors to juggle demanding practices during the day while taking call all night and on weekends. At one point, the hospital had a pool of eight physicians who were willing to take call; today there are only three.

Additionally, emergency room patients who are admitted to the hospital without a resident physician have been of concern to the hospital.

"So we found ourselves entering a time of predicament," said Parrish. "We wanted our local physicians to be able to choose where their time is most valuable, but we also wanted to ensure the absolute best care for our in-patients."

The hospitalist concept is a relatively new one to the medical world. The idea began gaining momentum about 10 years ago; in the past several years, rural hospitals like Humboldt General have begun to embrace the practice.

"The reality is that our local physicians cannot provide our in-patients with 24/7 care," said Parrish, "and we feel strongly that it is time to step up our in-patient care to around-the-clock levels."

Parrish said having hospitalists on site will eliminate some transfers, allowing more patients to stay in Winnemucca. Wait times for emergency room patients who need to be admitted to the hospital also will be shortened.

Additionally, Parrish said the larger group will be able to assist Humboldt General in improving its quality management and in-patient care protocols.

Still, Parrish said it was important to him to have local physicians' input before the hospital made its final decision. Area doctors met with each of three proposed hospitalist companies, leaning in favor of Rural Physicians Group, which Parrish feels helped the board make its decision.

Hospitalists will not be available to the community for routine care, and once a patient is discharged from the hospital, he or she will be referred back to his or her resident physician, or will be assigned one.

Additionally, hospitalist physicians will be in communication with each patient's regular physician and will share all results for immediate consultation and later follow-up.

"We just didn't see a downside to this," said Board of Trustees Chairman Moe Hanzlik. "Our patients will be receiving non-stop care, patients and their families will have access to a physician 24/7 and our local physicians can take on as little or as much hospital care as they want depending on their individual situations."

Hanzlik added, speaking on behalf of himself and other board members, "We felt this really was a new era for Humboldt General, a big step in the right direction, in doing what's best for our community."