Change You Should Believe In


Christina Payne, MD, is a third-year resident at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta who will begin her first hospitalist job, with Emory in September. In spite of her dearth of practical experience, she already has experience researching one of the most vexing problems confronting HM: how to improve transitions of care.

Dr. Payne has been studying the benefits of a structured electronic tool that generates a standardized sign-out list of a hospital team’s full census at the time of shift change, compared with the usual, highly variable sign-out practices of medical residents. At a poster presentation at Internal Medicine 2010 in April in Toronto, Dr. Payne and colleagues reported that residents using the tool were twice as confident at performing handoffs, had lower rates of perceived near-miss events, and were happier.1

“Hospitalists everywhere are starting to realize the importance of trying to reduce opportunities for human error that occur during care transitions,” Dr. Payne says. “The biggest thing I learned from this research is the importance of standardizing the handoff process [with information communicated consistently].

“It is essential to keep communication lines open,” Dr. Payne adds. “No tool can replace the importance of communication between doctors and the need to sit down and talk. The ideal signout happens in a quiet room where the two of you can talk about active patients and achieve rapport. But, realistically, how often does that happen?”

OnLine Exclusives

Listen to Arpana Vidyarthi, MD, Anuj Dalal, MD, and Sunil Kripalani, MD, MSc, discuss care transitions.

Standardization is one of a handful of strategies hospitalists, researchers, and policymakers are using to tackle transitions—both in-hospital handoffs and post-discharge transitions—with outpatient care. Some hospitalists are using practice simulations and training strategies; others have implemented medication reconciliation checks at every discharge, checklists and other communication strategies, team-based quality-improvement (QI) initiatives, and new technologies to enhance and streamline communication. Some interventions follow the patient from the hospital to the community physician with a phone call, follow-up clinic, or other contact; others aim to empower the patient to be a better self-advocate. But for hospitalists, the challenge is to communicate the right amount of transfer information to the right receiver at the right time.

No matter the technique, the goal is the same: Improve the handoff and discharge process in a way that promotes efficiency and patient safety. And hospitalists are at the forefront of the changing landscape of care transitions.

Under the Microscope

Care transitions of all kinds are under the magnifying glass of national healthcare reform, with growing recognition of the need to make care safer and reduce the preventable, costly hospital readmissions caused by incomplete handoffs. Care transitions for hospitalists include internal handoffs, both at daily shift changes and at service changes when an outgoing provider is leaving after a period of consecutive daily shifts. These typically involve a sign-out process and face-to-face encounter, with some kind of written backup. One teaching institution reported that such handoffs take place 4,000 times per day in the hospital, or 1.6 million times per year.2

This is a complex problem and it needs a multifaceted solution. But this lies squarely within the hospitalist arena. We’re part of everything that happens in the hospital.

—Arpana Vidyarthi, MD, University of California at San Francisco

Geographical transitions can be from one floor or department to another, or out the hospital door to another facility or home. Transitions typically involve a discharge process and a written discharge summary. Care transitions also include hospital admissions, which put the hospitalist in the role of handoff receiver rather than initiator, plus a variety of other transitions involving nurses, physician extenders, and other practitioners.

Each transition is a major decision point in the course of a patient’s hospitalization; each transition also presents a time of heightened vulnerability (e.g., potential communication breakdowns, medication errors, patient anxiety or confusion, etc.). In fact, according to a Transitions of Care Consensus Policy Statement published in 2009 by SHM and five other medical societies, handoffs are ubiquitous in HM, with significant patient safety and quality deficiencies in handoffs existing in the current system.3

Poor communication at the time of handoff has been implicated in near-misses and adverse events in a variety of healthcare contexts, including 70% of hospital sentinel events studied by The Joint Commission, which named standardized handoffs (with an opportunity for interactive communication) as a National Patient Safety Goal in 2006.4 The federal government is studying care transitions, supporting demonstration projects for Medicare enrollees, and including readmission rates in national hospital report card data.

Dr. Arora

“Transitions of care and handoffs are a huge focus right now because of the increased fragmentation of care in the United States. Hospitalists are in charge of a greater percentage of hospitalized patients, which means more coordination of care is needed,” says Vineet Arora, MD, MA, FHM, assistant professor of medicine and associate director of the internal-medicine residency at the University of Chicago, and chair of the SHM task force on handoffs.

Inadequate communication and poor care transitions can undermine hospitalists’ best care-planning efforts, erode patients’ and families’ confidence and satisfaction with hospital care, and leave primary-care physicians (PCPs) feeling unsatisfied with the relationship. As many as 1 in 5 Medicare beneficiary hospitalizations result in a readmission within 30 days, and while not all of these are preventable, far too many are.5 Another prospective cohort study found that 1 in 5 patients discharged from the hospital to the home experienced an adverse event within three weeks of discharge.6 Complex comorbidities, advanced age, unknown PCP, and limited healthcare literacy present hospitalists with extremely difficult transitions.

Patient safety and cost control are the linchpins to national efforts to improve transitions of care. Dr. Arora recently coauthored an original research paper, which will be published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine in September, showing older hospitalized patients are twice as likely to report problems after discharge if their PCPs were not aware they were hospitalized.

“With escalating healthcare costs, people are looking at ways to save money and reduce redundant care,” Dr. Arora explains, pointing out, as an example, repeated tests resulting from inadequate communication between healthcare providers.

OnLine Exclusive

Dr. Arora and colleagues at the University of Chicago are using a virtual training program to improve handoffs.

The System Must Change

“All of the effort we put into saving someone’s life—the years of experience, training, medical school, and residency—all of it comes to bear on that hospitalized patient. And it can all be unraveled at the time of discharge if it’s not handled properly,” says Arpana Vidyarthi, MD, a hospitalist and director of quality at the University of California at San Francisco.

Dr. Vidyarthi views in-hospital and discharge transitions as integrally related. “The analysis is similar, even if different techniques may be needed,” she says, adding that, fundamentally, it involves having a system that allows people—or forces them—to do the “right thing.”

That’s why achieving effective care transitions will require more than just a standardized tool or process, Dr. Vidyarthi says. “This is about understanding the ways people communicate and finding ways to train them to communicate better,” she says. “The problem we have is not a lack of information, but how to communicate what, to whom, and when.”

What’s really needed, Dr. Vidyarthi says, is a hospital’s commitment to more effective transitions and its hospitalists’ leadership in driving a comprehensive, multidisciplinary, team- and evidence-based QI process. The new process should be a QI-based solution to a hospital’s care-transitions issues. “Before you can standardize your process, you need to understand it,” she says. “This is a complex problem, and it needs a multifaceted solution. But this lies squarely within the hospitalist arena. We’re part of everything that happens in the hospital.

We created an intervention that automatically triggers an e-mail with the finalized test results to the responsible providers. The intervention creates a loop of communication between the inpatient attending and the PCP. What we hope to show in our research over the next year or two is whether the intervention actually increases awareness of test results by providers.

—Anuj Dalal, MD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston

Hospital administrators are looking to HM to solve transition and readmission problems now, says Tina Budnitz, MPH, BOOST Project Director (Better Outcomes for Older Adults through Safe Transitions). She expects the scrutiny from the C-suite, legislators, and watchdog groups to increase as the spotlight continues to shine on the healthcare system.

“Any hospitalist can act as a leader in their institution,” Budnitz says. “Be a change agent, pull a group together, and start asking questions: Do we have safe care-transitions practices and processes in place? Just by asking the right question, you can be a catalyst for the system.”

Budnitz also emphasizes the importance of teamwork in the hospital setting. “How can I help my teammates? What am I communicating to the nurses on rounds?” she says. “Can you initiate dialogue with your outpatient medical groups: ‘These faxes we’re sending you—is that information getting to you in ways and times that are helpful? And, by the way, when your patient is admitted, this information would really help me.’ ”

Dr. Vidyarthi (right) routinely speaks about solutions to transitions. She says hospitals and HM groups need systems that allow people—or forces them—to do the “right thing.” Dr. Arora

Dr. Vidyarthi (right) routinely speaks about solutions to transitions. She says hospitals and HM groups need systems that allow people—or forces them—to do the “right thing.”

Innovative Strategies

One of the most important initiatives responding to concerns about care transitions is Project BOOST (www.hos pitalmedicine.org/BOOST), a comprehensive toolkit for improving a hospital’s transitions of care. The project aims to build a national consensus for best practices in transitions; collaborate with representatives from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and the Joint Commission; and develop a national resource library, Budnitz says.

“Project BOOST not only puts forth best practices for admitting patients, planning for discharge, and then doing the discharge, it also helps show facilities how to change their systems, with resources and tools for analyzing and re-engineering the system,” she says. “Sites get one-to-one assistance from a mentor.”

Six hospitals signed on to the pilot program in 2008; 24 more joined last year. In January, SHM announced a collaborative with the University of Michigan and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan for 15 Michigan hospitals to receive training and mentorship starting in May. And last month, SHM and the California HealthCare Foundation announced a Project BOOST initiative for 20 of the health system’s hospitals (see “California Dreamin’”, p. 6). Other free resources offered on the BOOST Web portal include clinical, data collection, and project management tools. SHM also has a DVD that explains how to use the “teachback” method to improve communication with patients.

Re-Engineered Discharges

The basic components of the PROJECT RED checklist:

  1. Educate the patient about his or her diagnosis throughout the hospital stay.
  2. Schedule appointments for clinician follow-up and post-discharge testing.
  3. Discuss with the patient any tests or studies that have been completed in the hospital and discuss who will be responsible for following up the results.
  4. Organize post-discharge services.
  5. Confirm the medication plan.
  6. Reconcile the discharge plan with national guidelines and critical pathways.
  7. Review the appropriate steps for what to do if a problem arises.
  8. Expedite transmission of the discharge resume (summary) to the physicians (and other services, i.e., visiting nurses) accepting responsibility for the patient’s care after discharge.
  9. Assess the degree of understanding by asking them to explain in their own words the details of the plan.
  10. Give the patient a written discharge plan at the time of discharge.
  11. Provide telephone reinforcement of the discharge plan and problem-solving two to three days after discharge.

For more detailed information, visit the-hospitalist.org for the complete checklist.

Source: Jack BW, Chetty VK, Anthony D. The Re-Engineered Discharge: A RCT of a comprehensive hospital discharge program. Ann Int Med. 2009;150:178-187.

Jennifer Myers, MD, FHM, assistant professor of clinical medicine and patient-safety officer at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, is a Project BOOST participant who spearheaded a process change to improve the quality of her facility’s discharge summary, along with accompanying resident education.7 The discharge summary recently was integrated with the hospital’s electronic health record (EHR) system.

“We’ve gone from dictating the discharge summary to an electronic version completed by the hospitalist, with prompts for key components of the summary, which allows us to create summaries more efficiently—ideally on the day of discharge, but usually within 48 hours,” Dr. Myers says. “We previously researched whether teaching made a difference in the quality of discharges; we found that it did. So we look forward to standardizing our teaching approach around this important topic for all residents.”

Another care-transitions innovation receiving a lot of attention from the government and the private sector is Project RED (Re-Engineered Discharge), led by Brian Jack, MD, vice chair of the department of family medicine at Boston Medical Center. The Project RED research group develops and tests strategies to improve the hospital discharge process to promote patient safety and reduce rehospitalization rates.

“We used re-engineering tools borrowed from other fields, brought together experts from all over the hospital, divided up the whole discharge process, and identified key principles,” Dr. Jack explains. The resulting discharge strategy is reflected in an 11-item checklist of discrete, mutually reinforcing components, which have been shown to reduce rehospitalization rates by 32% while raising patient satisfaction.8 It includes comprehensive discharge and after-hospital plans, a nurse discharge advocate, and a medication reconciliation phone call to the patient. A virtual “patient advocate,” a computerized avatar named Louise, is now being tested. If successful, it will allow patients to interact with a touch-screen teacher of the after-care plan who has time to work at the patient’s pace.

Technology and Transitions

Dr. Chopra

Informatics can be a key player in facilitating care transitions, says Anuj Dalal, MD, a hospitalist and instructor in medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He is using one of his hospital’s technological strengths—a well-established, firewall-protected e-mail system—to help improve the discharge process.

“We decided to try to improve awareness of test results pending at the time of discharge,” Dr. Dalal explains. “We created an intervention that automatically triggers an e-mail with the finalized test results to the responsible providers. The intervention creates a loop of communication between the inpatient attending and the PCP. What we hope to show in our research over the next year or two is whether the intervention actually increases awareness of test results by providers.”

One thing to remember is that “all kinds of things can go wrong with care transitions,” no matter the size of the institution, the experience of the staff, or technological limitations, says Vineet Chopra, MD, FACP, a hospitalist at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor. “The problems of transitions vary from place to place, day to day, time of day, shift changes; and let’s not forget physician extenders and the other members of the healthcare team,” he says. “The more complicated the team, the more complicated the information needing to be handed off becomes.”

Who Else Is Looking at Transitions of Care?

Dr. Zadzam

SHM convened the Handoffs Task Force in 2006. The team systematically reviewed the literature and published recommendations in the September 2009 Journal of Hospital Medicine.9 The recommendations are aimed at both community and academic hospitals, as well as hospitalists and other healthcare providers. A new collaborative designed to supplement Project BOOST for hospitalist group handoffs and help put the guidelines into practice is in the works, says Dr. Arora, the task force’s chair.

SHM and five medical groups, including the American College of Physicians, issued a Transitions of Care Consensus Statement, published in the July 2009 issue of the Journal of Hospital Medicine.5 Guiding principles relate to education, measurement, accountability, timely interchange of information, inclusion of patient and family, respect for the medical home, and the need for national standards.

The Joint Commission’s Center for Transforming Health Care, established in 2009 to solve healthcare’s most critical safety and quality problems, has made handoff communications its second major target, and is now working with 10 healthcare systems. Standardized handoff processes and communications were the subject of the Joint Commission’s 2006 National Patient Safety Goal, while the Comprehensive Accreditation Manual for Hospitals also specifies that before a hospital discharges or transfers a patient, it should inform and educate the patient about his or her follow-up care and services.

“We now have a safety goal under review dealing with medication reconciliation, and there are relevant standards related to culturally sensitive communication and low-literacy-level communication,” says Deborah Zadzam, PhD, RN, FAAN, director of international quality and performance measures for Joint Commission Resources. “The essential message the Joint Commission has for hospitalists is to communicate clearly, effectively and thoroughly; don’t assume you are understood or that you understand.”—LB

Before he joined the group at the university, Dr. Chopra worked at a community hospital, St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital in Hot Springs, Ark. “It’s hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution when there are so many variables,” he says. At the community hospital, “we mandated that the hospitalist call the PCP at the time of discharge. At the academic medical center, we share an EHR with the PCPs and can reach them electronically. We are required to have the discharge summary in the computer before the patient leaves the hospital, and we mandate that hospitalists are reachable by e-mail or phone when they are off.

“I’m not a believer in throwing more technology at problems and just adding more layers of information tools,” Dr. Chopra adds. “Hospitalists who used to carry stethoscopes now also have a clipboard, phone, pager, PDA, and nine different signouts in their pockets. What we want to do is make their life easier. Here, we are looking at technology as a means to do that.”

Dr. Chopra and hospitalist colleague Prasanth Gosineni, MD, have been working with an Ann Arbor tech company called Synaptin to develop a lightweight, mobile client application designed to work on smartphones. Still in pilot testing, it would allow for task-oriented and priority-based messaging in real time and the systematic transfer of important information for the next hospitalist shift.

“You need to be able to share information in a systematic way, but that’s only half of the answer. The other half is the ability to ask specific questions,” Dr. Chopra says. “Technology doesn’t take away from the face-to-face encounter that needs to happen. Nothing will replace face time, but part of the solution is to provide data efficiently and in a way that is easily accessible.”

Dr. Chopra admits that EHR presents both positives and negatives to improved transitions and patient care, “depending on how well it works and what smart features it offers,” he says, “but also recognizing that EHR and other technologies have also taken us farther away from face-to-face exchanges. Some would say that’s part of the problem.”

Handoffs, discharges, and other transitions are ubiquitous in HM—and fraught with the potential for costly and harmful errors. The ideal of an interactive, face-to-face handoff simply is not available for many care transitions. However, hospitalists are challenged to find solutions that will work in their hospitals, with their teams, and their types of patients. Patients and policymakers expect nothing less. TH

Larry Beresford is a freelance writer based in Oakland, Calif.


  1. Payne C, Stein J, Dressler D. Implementation of a structured electronic tool to improve patient handoffs and resident satisfaction. Poster abstract: Internal Medicine 2010, April 21-24, 2010, Toronto.
  2. Vidyarthi AR. Triple Handoff. AHRQ WebM&M website. Available at: webmm.ahrq.gov/case.aspx? caseID=134. Published May 2006. Accessed May 29, 2010.
  3. Snow V, Beck D, Budnitz T, et al. Transitions of Care Consensus Policy Statement: American College of Physicians, Society of General Internal Medicine, Society of Hospital Medicine, American Geriatrics Society, American College of Emergency Physicians, and Society for Academic Emergency Medicine. J Hosp Med. 2009;4(6):364-370.
  4. 2006 National Patient Safety Goals. The Joint Commission website. Available at: www.jointcommission.org/PatientSafety/NationalPatientSafetyGoals/06_npsgs.htm. Accessed June 8, 2010.
  5. Jencks SF, Williams MV, Coleman EA. Rehospitalizations among patients in the Medicare fee-for-service program. N Engl J Med. 2009; 2:360:1418-1428.
  6. Forster AJ, Murff HJ, Peterson JF, Gandhi TK, Bates DW. The incidence and severity of adverse events affecting patients after discharge from the hospital. Ann Intern Med. 2003;138(3):161-167.
  7. Myers JS, Jaipaul CK, Kogan JR, Krekun S, Bellini LM, Shea JA. Are discharge summaries teachable? The effects of a discharge summary curriculum on the quality of discharge summaries in an internal medicine residency program. Acad Med. 2006; 81(10):S5-S8.
  8. Jack BW, Chetty VK, Anthony D, et al. A reengineered hospital discharge program to decrease rehospitalization: a randomized trial. Ann Intern Med. 2009;150(3):178-187.
  9. Arora VM, Manjarrez E, Dressler DD, Basaviah P, Halasyamani L, Kripalani S. Hospitalist handoffs: a systematic review and task force recommendations. J Hosp Med. 2009;4(7): 433-440.
  10. Halasyamani L, Kripalani S, Coleman E, et al. Transition of care for hospitalized elderly patients—development of a discharge checklist for hospitalists. J Hosp Med. 2006;1(6):354-360.
  11. Schnipper JL, Kirwin JL, Cotugno MC, et al. Role of pharmacist counseling in preventing adverse drug events after hospitalization. Arch Int Med. 2006;166(5):565-571.
  12. Dudas V, Bookwalter T, Kerr KM, Pantilat SZ. The impact of follow-up telephone calls to patients after hospitalization. Am J Med. 2001;111(9B): 26S-30S.

Care Transition Tips for Hospitalists and Groups

Active listening is key to effective discharges: stay focused, limit interruptions, and take notes. Dr. Arora

Active listening is key to effective discharges: stay focused, limit interruptions, and take notes.

One recognized key to effective internal handoffs is the face-to-face verbal update, with opportunities to ask questions, priority given to sicker patients, and a written backup filling in the blanks with information that might become important as the patient’s condition changes. But if that is not practical for your HM group, what tools and processes will come closest to the ideal?

A key to effective discharge from the hospital is connection with the PCP, although face-to-face encounters with PCPs are highly unlikely. Hospitalists say there are levels of connection with PCPs, from the urgent (“I need to talk to someone right now”) to the routine (“It’s OK if they get this information tomorrow”). Many often wonder if there should be two levels of discharge communication with PCPs: an immediate message relaying crucial information and a formal discharge summary coming later.

For HM groups, the following is a list of suggestions from transitions-of-care researchers:

  • Keep accurate and up-to-date contact information, including preferred communication medium, on referring physicians; survey them on their satisfaction with the discharge communications they receive from hospitalists.
  • Partner with hospital administrators and with patient-safety and quality officers to address handoff issues.
  • Partner with IT staff to help bridge the divide between clinicians and information technology.
  • Track such outcomes as rehospitalization rates.
  • Offer formal training on handoffs, discharges, and effective communication to physicians and other providers.
  • Standardize the signout process, with computerized tools when appropriate, and create automated systems for following up on tests and lab results that come back after discharge.
  • Structure shifts and their overlaps to help facilitate signouts.
  • Consider implementing a discharge checklist.10
  • Develop a strategy for medication reconciliation, with someone assigned to the process, be that a hospitalist, pharmacist or nurse.11
  • Advocate for a post-discharge call-back policy by assigned staff at defined intervals, either for every patient discharged or for those targeted as higher-risk.12
  • Consider creating a post-discharge clinic and/or a phone number that discharged patients can call to clarify post-discharge questions and concerns.

For individual hospitalists:

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Have a story idea or a clinical question you’d like answered? We’d like to hear about it. Send your questions and story ideas to Editor Jason Carris, [email protected], or to Physician Editor Jeff Glasheen, MD, SFHM, [email protected].

  • Understand the transition process, where it fails, and why.
  • Be open to changing the way you do things. Be accountable for transitions, and a role model for others.
  • Focus on the present—today’s baseline, current to-do items, and what to expect next in the patient’s care.
  • Track patients and their future discharge needs from the day of admission. What’s the likely date for going home? What does the patient need to learn in the meantime? Help nurses focus on achieving those needs and, if possible, schedule the initial outpatient clinic appointment before the patient leaves the hospital.
  • Take time to talk your patients, listen to their concerns and confirm their understanding of what lies ahead.

For hospitalists on the receiving end of transition messages:

  • Actively listen—stay focused, limit interruptions, take notes.
  • Ask questions to ensure your understanding and read back what you understand to be the communication.
  • Have a system for keeping track of to-do items requiring follow-up.—LB

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