Each year, approximately 16 percent of patients in United States hospitals are readmitted within thirty days of discharge. Readmissions and the additional treatments they entail are costly to both patients and insurers. Increasingly, they are costly to hospitals as well.
A portion of readmissions is unavoidable, such as a planned readmission for chemotherapy or an unexpected adverse event unrelated to the original diagnosis. However, many other readmissions are preventable through high quality clinical care and effective patient education and discharge procedures.
The Financial Impact of Hospital Readmissions
To reduce hospital readmission rates nationwide, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) began financially penalizing hospitals with higher than expected readmission rates via their Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP) that began in 2012. The cost of those penalties across United States hospitals increased significantly from a total of 290 million dollars in fiscal year (FY) 2013 to an estimated 563 million dollars in FY 2019.
Failure to reduce readmissions has become more expensive over the program’s lifetime. In the first year of the HRRP, the maximum penalty was 1 percent of Medicare reimbursements withheld. By design, that maximum penalty has since increased to 3 percent.
National hospital readmission rates have dropped since the program launched, but not enough to decrease penalties. Of the 3,129 general hospitals evaluated in the HRRP in 2019, 83 percent received a penalty.
The increases are due in part to additional health conditions included in the program. In the program’s first year, CMS evaluated the readmission rates of patients with heart attacks, heart failure, and pneumonia to determine whether a hospital faced penalties. Today, CMS also measures readmission rates of patients with chronic lung disease, hip and knee replacement, and coronary artery bypass graft surgery. Scheduled readmissions are not counted.
Additionally, the program is set up such that CMS evaluates each hospital’s readmission rates relative to the national average for each condition. Even as readmission rates drop overall, there will always be hospitals that have more readmissions than the national average.
A 2016 study on hospital profitability published in the journal Health Affairs found that most hospitals in the United States are not profitable, and the median acute care hospital is losing 82 dollars per discharge. Given those numbers, it’s imperative for hospitals to reduce readmission rates and reduce the amount of Medicare reimbursements left on the table.
Readmission Rates and Causes in the United States
Some patients will always be readmitted after discharge. However, the wide range of readmission rates across hospitals suggests that there are addressable factors behind readmissions. In some cases, a readmission may be related to what happened during the original hospitalization. In other instances, patient readmission ties to what happens after discharge from the hospital.
A study on preventability and causes of readmissions published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2016 reviewed the cases of 1,000 general medicine patients readmitted within thirty days of discharge across twelve United States hospitals from April 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013. Of those 1,000 readmissions, 26.9 percent were potentially preventable.
According to the study, common factors in potentially preventable readmissions were related to what happened at the time of discharge and after the patient went home. The authors cited emergency department decision making at the time of readmission, patient failure to keep important follow-up appointments, premature discharge, and lack of patient awareness about who to contact after discharge as the most common factors.
The study’s authors concluded that “High-priority areas for improvement efforts include improved communication among health care teams and between healthcare professionals and patients, greater attention to patients’ readiness for discharge, enhanced disease monitoring, and better support for patient self-management.”
CMS’s steep penalties are motivated by a desire to provide better patient care and, in doing so, to reduce healthcare costs. One of the best ways for hospitals to prevent unnecessary readmissions is by calling patients after their discharge to check in on symptoms, review medications and treatment plans, and offer patients an opportunity to ask questions about their recovery.
Post-Discharge Patient Education
Often, a patient is readmitted because they didn’t follow the correct medication regimen, lacked understanding of the treatment plan, or failed to follow up with their primary care physician after discharge.
Ideally, patients receive thorough education about medication regimens and treatment plans throughout their stay and at the time of discharge. However, literacy and comprehension rates vary across patient populations, and patients don’t always understand written or verbal discharge instructions.
Additionally, at the time of discharge, patients are preoccupied with the logistics and excitement of going home. Attempts at patient education might not be effective, no matter how well delivered. Once patients have arrived home, the complexity of managing their new medications and daily routines on their own becomes much more apparent.
Several studies have found that other factors, including the patient’s social support network, marital status, gender, and income can affect a patient’s ability to follow discharge instructions and manage their care at home.
Whether it’s addressing a lack of comprehension regarding a patient’s treatment plan or addressing a lack of support in enacting that treatment plan, a post-discharge phone call can provide a way for hospitals to help patients stay well at home.
Using Calls to Reduce Readmissions
Hospitals have many opportunities throughout a patient’s healthcare journey to reduce the chance of readmission. One commonly cited way to reduce readmissions is by improving patient education around managing their care after discharge.
Specifically, implementing a post-discharge phone call to review medication regimens and treatment plans, discuss symptoms and other concerns, and check in on home health services and follow-up appointments helps reduce readmission rates.
A paper published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2001 found that when pharmacists called patients two days after discharge to review whether they had obtained and understood how to take their medications, patients were much less likely to visit the emergency department within thirty days of discharge. Ten percent of those who received a phone call from a pharmacist went to the ED, compared to 24 percent of patients who did not receive a call.
In another program, IPC The Hospitalist Company (IPC) tested the effect of post-discharge call center outreach on readmission rates. Nurses at the IPC call center called 350,000 discharged patients from October 2010 through September 2011. During the calls, nurses talked through each patient’s symptoms, medications, home health services, and follow-up appointments. The nurses answered patient questions about discharge instructions and, if the patient had a serious medical need, contacted the patient’s hospitalist or primary care physician.
Nurses successfully reached 30 percent of patients. This program prevented an estimated 1,782 avoidable readmissions over the course of a year.
Setting Up a Post-Discharge Call Program
Research suggests that the best time for a post-discharge call is within the first two to three days after a patient arrives home. At this point, the patient has had the opportunity to settle in, fill medications, make follow-up appointments, and it is still early enough for a nurse’s call to make an impact. Many patients won’t answer on the first try, so nurses should plan to call more than once.
The first step in setting up a post-discharge call program is to ensure that call center staff have the best number to reach each patient. Sometimes the number in the patient’s record is different from their home or cell phone number. IPC The Hospitalist Company found that by asking patients for the best number to reach them or their caretaker, they were able to increase their successful call rate from 30 percent to more than 40 percent of discharged patients.
Customized Care Call Scripts
Providing nurses with diagnosis-specific scripts can help make care calls more efficient and effective, as many conditions have standard red flags nurses should check in on, such as weight gain after discharge for heart failure. Virtually any type of script is easy to create, including common scripts for post-surgery, diabetic, and pediatric post-discharge calls. Setting up a unique script with detailed questions for each, helps to ensure patients understand discharge instructions, address any medication questions, and help ensure the patients are not experiencing symptoms that would cause them to be readmitted.
Nurses should also have access to physicians’ discharge notes to review patient-specific follow-ups. Physician discharge notes must be completed in a timely manner to give nurses the information they need for the calls.
To supplement the post-discharge nurse phone call, organizations can also use HL7 integration to receive discharge notifications and set up automated appointment reminder calls. This helps increase the likelihood that patients make it to their appointments and receive the prescribed follow-up care.
To avoid penalties and help patients to stay healthy at home, hospitals can leverage call centers and post-discharge phone calls with customized scripts to check in on symptoms, review medications and treatment plans, and remind patients of follow-up appointments. Studies suggest that such measures reduce the rate of readmissions.
For hospitals, implementing a discharge call center program can help avoid or reduce Medicare readmission rate penalties. For patients, the program can improve their post-discharge care management and health.
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