Our People in Profile: Halifax Infirmary physician Dr. Elizabeth Burton on what being 'a hospitalist' means to her

Dr. Elizabeth Burton is a hospitalist at the Halifax Infirmary (Kristen Lipscombe/NSHA).
Dr. Elizabeth Burton is a hospitalist at the Halifax Infirmary (Kristen Lipscombe/NSHA).

What the heck is a hospitalist?

“In my mind, a hospitalist is a generalist, so usually a family medicine- or general internal medicine-trained physician who takes care of people in the hospital,” Dr. Elizabeth Burton described earlier this week, while taking a break between rounds on Unit 8.4 at the Halifax Infirmary.

“The role of the hospitalist is taking care of the admitted inpatients,” she explained.

The term “hospitalist” is fairly new and not necessarily well known by the general public, so Dr. Burton is pleased to see National Hospitalist Day introduced this year, now set for the first Thursday of March.

“A day to talk about it a little more is a good thing, just to spread awareness, so that people know what we’re doing and how we can potentially help them.”

Dr. Burton, a born and bred Nova Scotian, completed her undergraduate studies in neuroscience and attended medical school at Dalhousie University, complementing that education with family medicine training at The Moncton Hospital.

“All the doctors there do a lot of inpatient care, and I’ve always really liked it,” the New Glasgow native said of why she wanted to become a hospitalist. “I’ve always been someone who likes the general internal medicine side of things, so I had a lot of exposure in residency.”

After completing her residency, Dr. Burton tried out several different practice styles, while her husband – who followed her lead by starting medical school a few years later – completed his own family medicine training in New Brunswick.

By the time the couple had decided to move home to work and live in Nova Scotia, Dr. Burton had tried out enough ways of practising medicine to determine that she “just really enjoyed the hospital work the most.”

“So it was through some experimentation and trying things out,” she said. “My passion was just more for the in-hospital care.”

Her husband, meanwhile, opted to become an emergency physician.

Dr. Ryan Maldre, from the small community of Thorburn, which is nestled next to his wife’s hometown in Pictou County, now works across the harbour at Dartmouth General Hospital. The two doctors have a four-year-old son, Remy Maldre.

While Dr. Maldre toils away at Dartmouth’s emergency department, Dr. Burton is quite happy helping patients and working with staff in the hospitalist medicine unit on the Halifax side.

“I like that we … have an interdisciplinary team that works together to try and help someone get better,” Dr. Burton said, explaining she works alongside nurses, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, continuing care assistants, dietitians and others to ensure patients are receiving high quality individualized care while in hospital.

Patients can be admitted to the hospitalist medicine unit by internal medicine, or through the emergency department, intensive care unit or step down units. Hospitalists see “a very broad” range of conditions, from influenza and pneumonia, to palliative care, and many illnesses in between, she explained.

“There’s the full spectrum of patient experiences.”

“Every day, I go to work to care for people who are acutely ill,” Dr. Burton said. “They have medical problems that have taken them out of their normal daily lives to the point that they need to be in the hospital.”

No matter why people end up on her unit, Dr. Burton and her team members know it’s often an emotionally trying experience for patients and their families.

“It’s stressful to be in the hospital and it’s nice to be able to provide that help and see someone either recover, or if they’re not going to recover, give them comfort with their illness,” she said.

Being a hospitalist means “stepping in and helping out when they’re really sick and communicating and sending information back to their family doctor when they leave, to hopefully make sure that they have a seamless transition back to health,” she said.

Perhaps most satisfying is putting together a discharge plan for a patient, which means they get to leave her unit – and the hospital.

“Even if I don’t see them outside of the hospital, I feel like I’ve helped them during a very stressful time in their life,’ Dr. Burton said. “You do the best you can to give them a good outcome.”

"I find it really rewarding,” Dr. Burton said.

To learn more about hospitalists, check out the Canadian Society of Hospital Medicine.