A New York Times article by Jane Gross highlights a costly healthcare problem: avoidable hospital readmissions, which affect one in five patients and account for $17.4 billion of the current $102.6 billion Medicare budget. (When people talk about readmissions, they’re generally referring to an admission within 30 days of the previous admission for the same condition.)
When patients end up back in the hospital, it’s often because their care didn’t continue appropriately when they were first discharged. Patients leaving the hospital should receive detailed instructions about what they need to do to take care of themselves – ranging from what they should eat and how much they should move around to which medications they should take and what kind of medical care they should get.
There are many points where this can go wrong. Patients might not receive the appropriate instructions, or they might not understand them. They may not have caregivers who can help them follow the instructions – for instance, by bringing patients food while they remain in bed or helping them get around if their mobility is limited. If prescription drugs or doctor visits are recommended, patients’ insurance status, financial resources, and location will influence their ability to comply. Once a patient arrives for the recommended follow-up appointment, the healthcare provider will need to have sufficient information about the hospitalization.
In her article, Gross focuses on one specific solution to the readmission problem – hospitalists:
By the time Djigui Keita left the hospital for home, his follow-up appointment had been scheduled. Emergency health insurance was arranged until he could apply for public assistance. He knew about changes in his medication — his doctor had found less expensive brands at local pharmacy chains. And Mr. Keita, 35, who had passed out from dehydration, was cautioned to carry spare water bottles in the taxi he drove for a living.
The hourlong briefing the home-bound patient received here at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania was orchestrated by a hospitalist, a member of America’s fastest-growing medical specialty. Over a decade, this breed of physician-administrator has increasingly taken over the care of the hospitalized patient from overburdened family doctors with less and less time to make hospital rounds — or, as in Mr. Keita’s case, when there is no family doctor at all.
Because hospitalists are on top of everything that happens to a patient — from entry through treatment and discharge — they are largely credited with reducing the length of hospital stays by anywhere from 17 to 30 percent, and reducing costs by 13 to 20 percent, according to studies in The Journal of the American Medical Association. As their numbers have grown, from 800 in the 1990s to 30,000 today, medical experts have come to see hospitalists as potential leaders in the transition to the Obama administration’s health care reforms, to be phased in by 2014.
… Dr. Subha Airan-Javia, Mr. Keita’s hospitalist, splits her time between clinical care and designing computer programs to contain costs and manage staff workflow.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the new healthcare law) will reduce Medicare payments to hospitals with excess hospital readmissions, so this potential loss of revenue might spur more hospitals to hire hospitalists.
The new law also includes Medicare demonstration programs, summarized by the Kaiser Family Foundation, that have the potential to start moving us toward a system that pays for quality of care, rather than just quantity of services:
- Establish a national Medicare pilot program to develop and evaluate paying a bundled payment for acute, inpatient hospital services, physician services, outpatient hospital services, and post-acute care services for an episode of care that begins three days prior to a hospitalization and spans 30 days following discharge. If the pilot program achieves stated goals of improving or not reducing quality and reducing spending, develop a plan for expanding the pilot program. (Establish pilot program by January 1, 2013; expand program, if appropriate, by January 1, 2016)
- Create the Independence at Home demonstration program to provide high-need Medicare beneficiaries with primary care services in their home and allow participating teams of health professionals to share in any savings if they reduce preventable hospitalizations, prevent hospital readmissions, improve health outcomes, improve the efficiency of care, reduce the cost of health care services, and achieve patient satisfaction. (Effective January 1, 2012)
- Establish a hospital value-based purchasing program in Medicare to pay hospitals based on performance on quality measures and extend the Medicare physician quality reporting initiative beyond 2010. (Effective October 1, 2012) Develop plans to implement value-based purchasing programs for skilled nursing facilities, home health agencies, and ambulatory surgical centers. (Reports to Congress due January 1, 2011)
If hospitals are rewarded for providing better-coordinated care, including high-quality discharge instructions, we may see fewer avoidable hospital readmissions. That’ll be good for patients’ health as well as Medicare finances.