Sound Physicians Taps Into Hospitalist Movement, Builds Fast-Growing Healthcare Delivery Business

8/17/10Follow @xconomy

One of the fastest-growing companies in the Northwest has little to do with high-tech, biotech, or cleantech. Tacoma, WA-based Sound Physicians owes its rapid rise to an innovative form of healthcare delivery that hospitals are flocking to as part of their ongoing quest to save money and improve patient care.

Sound Physicians has got to be one of the hottest local growth companies that few have heard of. This privately held firm, founded in 2000, eclipsed $100 million in revenue last year, runs in the black, and has grown to more than 500 employees, with more than 400 of them physicians. The company doesn’t envision going public, although it is seeking to branch out from its core customer base in the Western states and Midwest to build a company that serves hospitals with physicians-for-hire from coast to coast.

“We don’t have a goal of being a public business, but we do have a goal of being known as an outstanding leader in healthcare,” says CEO Rob Bessler.

Sound Physicians is part of a growing trend in medicine that’s sometimes called the “hospitalist” movement. The idea is that patients will be better served by a physician who works entirely inside the hospital, and practices the most efficient evidence-based techniques for treating patients inside its four walls. That means the primary care doctor or specialist can stay in his or her private practice, doing what he or she does best, and refer the patient to a hospitalist who knows the inner workings of the hospital better, or so the thinking goes. Outsourced hospitalist firms like Sound Physicians get hired by hospitals to perform this work, and they are judged on how well they do at lowering costs of care, improving health outcomes, and reducing average hospital length of stay.

The term “hospitalist” was coined in 1996, and only about 3,000 doctors nationwide were practicing this form of medicine when Sound Physicians got started a decade ago, Bessler says. Now there are roughly 10-fold more doctors in this field—more than the total number of practicing cardiologists, Bessler says. Sound Physicians even has a publicly-traded competitor in North Hollywood, CA-based IPC (NASDAQ: IPCM). Another venture-backed rival is Brentwood, TN-based Cogent Healthcare.

Rob Bessler

Rob Bessler

Fast as it may be catching on, this movement cuts against the grain of a lot of established thinking in medicine. Getting the culture piece right is essential. The model at Sound Physicians calls for recruiting doctors, generally while they’re young, and imbuing them with a sense of practicing evidence-based medicine that shoots for consistent quality care without spending ridiculous amounts of money on exploratory MRI tests, for example.

While Sound Physicians has sought to standardize some of what physicians do into best practices—and even sought inspiration from consistent quality ideas used by makers of planes and cars—this is still medicine, and it still relies heavily on human judgment, Bessler says. Blanket decrees that say something like “no MRIs” for anybody who has what looks like a torn knee ligament just won’t work, he says. Bessler, 38, speaks with a lot more authority than an accountant on this issue, as a board-certified emergency medicine physician with a degree in economics.

While doctors might be expected to resist … Next Page »

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