Statistics show that about 1 in 5, or 20 percent of all Medicare patients are readmitted to hospital within 30 days of discharge. That’s a staggering number, not to mention all those patients that are readmitted frequently during the course of a year, but not necessarily within 30 days.
The problem of frequent hospital readmissions is actually one that exists all over the world and not just in the United States. Health care systems everywhere are seeking solutions to keep their patients healthier and away from hospital. Any doctor practicing at the frontlines will be able to tell you what a big issue this is right now. We regularly see the same patients on something of a merry-go-round of frequent hospital admissions, often with the same illness.
Why does this happen? This issue is complex. In my experience as a hospital medicine doctor, there are number of factors in play, falling into different categories according to the type of illness, availability of definitive treatment, and the social circumstances of the patient.
Severity of illness. Certain chronic conditions, such as congestive heart failure (CHF) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), when in their advanced stages, are very labile and prone to exacerbations. As much as doctors try to control these with medications, it’s a very difficult task, as it only takes a slight precipitant such as a minor infection or dietary indiscretion to push somebody over the edge. By their very nature chronic diseases tend to get worse over time. And with an aging population, these conditions are increasing in prevalence. Unless we find definitive cures, hospitalizations are always unfortunately a possibility.
Social situation. Patients who have inadequate family support tend to be admitted to hospital more frequently for a couple of reasons. Firstly, their threshold for being able to cope at home with their illness is much lower. Secondly, they will not be able to co-ordinate their regular follow up care so easily. We see the effects of this all the time at the frontlines — two patients with the same level of illness severity; one will be managed at home, the other will require hospital admission for several days.
Lack of follow-up. Many studies have shown that lack of follow-up with a primary care physician in the weeks after discharge can lead to a higher likelihood of re-hospitalization. Seeing a doctor quickly post discharge allows for any potential problems to be “nipped in the bud”. It also allows for care co-ordination and medication reconciliation. Sadly, a large number of patients do not have a regular primary care doctor (mostly for insurance reasons). They therefore tend to use the emergency room as their first point of contact when they feel unwell again.
Suboptimal discharge process. By its’ very nature, the process of discharging a complicated patient from hospital is one that is fraught with possible problems. The discharge process needs to be thorough, seamless and diligent. Areas for improvement in most hospitals include medication reconciliation, clarifying follow-up appointments, follow-up laboratory tests, and making sure that the patient and family is clear about these instructions. Too often, this process is rushed and glossed over. Nothing beats having the doctor sit down with the patient and their family, spending time reviewing all the pertinent information.
Low health literacy. Many patients are not fully educated and informed about the nature of their illness and how best to manage it at home. This can be dealt with by regular reinforcement and utilizing home nursing services to keep on checking in with the patient post-discharge.
Certain very obvious patterns do exist in how patients tend to be readmitted to hospital. Several initiatives are underway across the country to try and improve the situation. Primary care doctors, specialty clinics, home nursing services, and even social workers are all being utilized as part of a team-based approach. The strategies broadly involve:
- Identifying high-risk patients early
- Educating the patient and involving family members
- Having very close follow-up with a collaborative care team
As part of health care reform, hospitals are also facing financial penalties for consistently high readmission rates. But financial penalties alone aren’t the answer, especially for “safety net” hospitals that struggle more with this problem. It’s important to remember that the drive to reduce readmissions is not just about saving the health care system money, but ultimately about keeping our patients healthier and stronger. Whatever can be done to keep them at home enjoying life as much as possible instead of lying in a hospital bed, can only be a good thing.
Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha and High Percentage Wellness Steps: Natural, Proven, Everyday Steps to Improve Your Health & Well-being. He blogs at his self-titled site, Suneel Dhand.