What Is a Hospitalist Doctor?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 10, 2023
4 min read

For everyday health issues, you visit a primary care doctor, also known as a family doctor. However, when you need more intensive care — such as at a hospital — your primary care doctor may refer you to a hospitalist doctor, or simply a hospitalist.

A hospitalist is a doctor who provides care for patients at a hospital. They have the same education and training as your primary care doctor, but specialize in providing hospital care. They may also have other specialties such as pediatric (child-centered) medicine, internal medicine, or family medicine.

A hospitalist doctor focuses on patient care inside a hospital, rather than on a specific organ or medical issue, like an allergist or a cardiologist does.

Hospitalist doctors are not the same as emergency doctors, though they may spend time in the emergency room (ER). Their primary focus is treating specific illnesses or diseases, and ensuring a healthy recovery before sending you back to your primary care doctor.

A hospitalist doctor covers the gap in care from primary care doctor to hospital, or from emergency room back to primary care. They manage you, the patient, from the moment you arrive at the hospital and all throughout your hospital stay. They work with your primary care doctor, and follow up with them after your hospital visit.

A hospitalist has specialized training in:

  • Coordinated care between specialists
  • Internal medicine
  • Acute medical care
  • Ordering and evaluating diagnostic tests
  • Transition of care to specialists
  • Palliative care

A hospitalist specializes in diagnosing and treating a wide variety of illnesses. They do work similar to the work your primary care doctor does — just in a hospital setting.

For example, they may order medications or testing, such as X-rays. When you have questions about your hospital treatments, they provide answers. They specialize in communication, rapid diagnosis, and acute medical care.

Hospitalist doctors are highly educated and trained individuals. To become one, years of general education and specialized education at a medical school are required. Hospitalist doctors need to complete:

  • A bachelor’s degree
  • A four-year medical degree
  • A residency in general medicine, general pediatrics, or family medicine
  • A fellowship program
  • Continuous medical education (40 hours for license renewal)

Traditional education and training requires nine or more years — ten years if they undergo a fellowship program.

As with other doctors, hospitalists are licensed professionals and must pass medical examinations that certify them to practice medicine. In the U.S., hospitalist doctors certify under the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

After completing their education and training expectations, hospitalist doctors can apply for hospitalist jobs at hospitals in their state.

Normally, you wouldn’t decide to see a hospitalist doctor alone. If you’re recovering from an accident, your ER doctor may move your care to a hospitalist — depending on the hospital’s availability, the level of care you need, and your condition. You may also be referred to a hospitalist by your primary care doctor.

If your condition needs further examination, treatment, or long-term care inside a hospital, you will see a hospitalist doctor. Also, you’ll likely see one for any conditions requiring acute care. These include:

The ultimate goal of a hospitalist doctor is to help you recover, leave the hospital, and return to normal life.

A hospitalist doctor will care for you for as long as you’re at the hospital. However, you may see multiple hospitalists, depending on the length of your stay.

Hospitalists perform a series of tests, which may include:

Complete blood count (CBC). This test measures your white blood cells, red blood cells, and platelets.

Basic metabolic panel. This test checks your metabolism, monitors kidney status, and measures electrolytes and blood sugar (glucose) levels.

Lipid panel. This test monitors your cardiovascular health. It measures your cholesterol and triglycerides.

Urinalysis. This is a test of your urine. It detects a wide range of disorders.

Cultures. These tests determine what bacteria exist within your body. For instance, a blood culture test looks for infections in the blood. Other varieties are throat cultures, mucus cultures, or stool cultures.

Hospitalist doctors may request additional tests, such as electrocardiograms (EKG), functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI), and X-rays as needed.

Your hospitalist focuses their efforts on determining your course of treatment. They work with other specialists in the hospital to give you the most efficient care and get you healthy again.