The organized medical staff has a unique role in assuring the quality of care in hospitals. Yet the volunteer medical staff members are under unprecedented pressures which inhibit their willingness to take on tasks they traditionally have performed for free – whether medical staff leadership, service on committees, or on-call and indigent care coverage. Now, there is some data showing that throughout the country, there is an emerging bifurcation into alternate models of medical staff-hospital relationships. (See, Casalino et al, “Hospital-Physician Relations: Two Tracks And The Decline of the Voluntary Medical Staff”, Health Affairs (Sept 2008). Where in the era of post-failed Clinton health reform, hospitals bought primary care practices and then had to unload them, more and more hospitals today are acquiring specialist practices and employing specialist physicians. Equally present are the settings in which members of the medical staff go into competition with the hospital and cease to attend there as much as they used to, while they own and develop ambulatory surgery centers, imaging facilities and even whole specialty hospitals. What is the significance of this for medical staff governance and quality surveillance? These changes in organizational arrangements really ought to have little meaning to the functioning of the organized medical staff in relationship to the hospital board and administration with regard to its principal responsibilities for quality. The medical staff members, whether employed or independent or more typically a mix, still have a unique role in the hospital.

Some commentators have taken the position that the organized medical staff is obsolete if not moribund. We believe they may be wrong; although it is becoming increasingly important to consider carefully just what the function of the medical staff ought to be in the highest quality environments. If 20% of the medical staff is responsible for 80% of the hospital admissions, then who should be considered Active Staff with governance authority to make the rules for the interrelationships among all physicians? Who should define the quality culture for physicians? If the hospital employs the physicians and mandates their participation in activities that fundamentally do not interest them, what will be the outcome for patients? If the medical executive committee is focused on internecine warfare, endovascular food-fights and not how many hearses leave the hospital and why, what will the hospital do without a medical staff on whom it can rely to create a high quality environment? We think these are essential questions which merit the attention of hospitals, their boards and medical staff members. We do not believe that employment of medical staff members ensures an engaged medical staff which will work well on quality issues. We think that the current moment in quality policy and demand for demonstrated hospital quality performance offers an unprecedented opportunity to reinvigorate the role of the medical staff around issues that really matter.