How hospitalists can help reduce readmissions

Targeting discharge interventions for patients at high risk of readmission


Hospital readmissions are frequent, harmful, and costly. Consider the fact that 18% of Medicare patients can expect to be readmitted within 30 days at a cost of more than $17 billion.1 Recent changes in health care policy aimed at reducing readmission have substantially increased attention to this major health care issue.2

The Affordable Care Act has mandated that the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services reduce payment to hospitals with higher-than-expected 30-day readmissions, with its Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program. This has driven rapid growth in the study of patients rehospitalized within 30 days of discharge.3 So what are some strategies that have either been proven to reduce readmissions or show promise in doing so?

FY 2017 IPPS Final Rule HRRP Supplemental Data File. Courtesy of Advisory Board.

This map reflects the number of hospitals in each state that will receive a penalty in fiscal year 2017 under the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP). Performance reporting period for FY 2017 program year was July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2015.

An ounce of prevention

In studying inpatient and outpatient physicians’ perspectives regarding factors contributing to readmission,4 Shoshana Herzig, MD, MPH, assistant professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, and director of Hospital Medicine Research, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, Boston, and her colleagues identified some potential preventive strategies.

The most commonly endorsed strategy to prevent readmissions by both primary care physicians and hospitalists surveyed involved improving self-management plans at discharge. “This refers to actions such as providing patient-centered discharge instructions (that is, making sure they are written in language that patients can understand) or asking transition coaches to help facilitate a successful transition,” Dr. Herzig said. “This finding is consistent with the fact that the factor most commonly identified as contributing to readmissions was insufficient patient understanding or ability to self-manage. Combined, these findings suggest that strategies to enhance patient understanding of their illness, care plan, and what to expect after hospital discharge, are likely to be important components of successful readmission reduction programs.”

Another commonly endorsed strategy to prevent readmission was greater engagement of home and community supports. This entails enlisting the help of social workers and community agencies to deliver meals, provide transportation to doctors’ appointments, and so forth. “Inadequate social support contributes to many readmissions,” Dr. Herzig said. “Hospitalists should request assistance from social workers in helping to secure assistance for patients who need these services.”

Provisioning of resources to patients to help them manage their care after discharge is also recommended. For example, engaging nurses or pharmacists who can help with issues that arise after discharge may help keep patients out of the hospital.

“Hospitalists should be aware of what resources are available to help patients manage their care,” Dr. Herzig said. For example, if a patient needs periodic blood pressure monitoring, the hospitalist can tell the patient about free blood pressure checkpoints or suggest a home-automated blood pressure monitor.

The study also showed that improved coordination of care between inpatient and outpatient providers, such as sharing medical records, could reduce readmission rates. “This allows for better inpatient care and increased ability for primary care physicians to react appropriately to issues arising after discharge,” Dr. Herzig said. “In the absence of a shared system, hospitalists should complete discharge summaries in a timely fashion and ensure that they’re promptly transmitted to primary care physicians.”

Dr. Shoshana Herzig

Dr. Shoshana Herzig

Finally, the researchers believe that multifaceted, broadly applied interventions may be more successful than those relying upon individual providers choosing specific services based on perceived risk factors. “This is because a prior study5 demonstrated that it is difficult to anticipate in advance which patients will be readmitted, and, in our study, physicians did not agree on the factors that contributed to a given readmission,” Dr. Herzig explained. “Because of these findings, it becomes hard to rely on physicians to identify patients at increased risk for readmission, and to direct services that correctly anticipate contributing factors. Instead, it seems that programs aimed at improving general processes for particular patient categories may be more successful at reducing readmissions.” For example, it might be better to use a transition coach for all patients over the age of 65, rather than relying on physicians to decide which patients are at high risk for readmission.

Dr. Herzig said it’s important to note that hospitalists and primary care physicians had different appraisals of reasons for readmission. Therefore, when designing readmission reduction programs or determining specific services to prevent a readmission for a given patient, it is important for hospitalists to obtain input from primary care physicians to ensure that they address all of the potential contributors to readmission for a given patient.

Interviewing patients regarding readmissions

After involved clinicians and independent physician reviewers performed extensive case reviews of more than 700 readmitted patients,6 Ashley Busuttil, MD, FHM, associate section chief, Hospital Medicine, University of California, Los Angeles Department of Medicine; and executive medical director, Medicine Services, UCLA Department of Medicine, and Erin Dowling, MD, assistant clinical professor, General Internal Medicine, Hospitalist Services, UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, Calif., and their colleagues were unable to identify which readmissions could have easily been prevented, and found that readmission causality varied extensively.

Dr. Erin Dowling

Dr. Erin Dowling

Given this, the researchers set out to identify a more nuanced understanding of why patients return to the hospital. They decided to do this by talking to patients directly, and specifically studied patient readiness from the patient perspective.

Through interviews with patients, the researchers determined that patients were more likely to think that their readmission was preventable if they felt unready for discharge during their initial hospitalization. This was despite the fact that patients met what clinicians would consider “ready” by objective, provider-centric criteria: they were medically stable, they had in-home support services, they had follow-up arranged, and so forth. As such, they wanted to put effort into educating and preparing patients for what home will look and feel like posthospitalization to address their feelings of unreadiness.

To that end, the researchers created an enhanced transition initiative that included showing an educational video near the time of admission and a patient-centered discharge checklist to help patients identify questions they might have after discharge. The discharge checklist asks patients to put themselves in the position of being at home and working through scenarios they may face so they will know how to deal with them. For example, if you have pain, who should you call? What should you do if you run out of medication?

Dr. Dowling believes that the hospitalist will, over time, become essential to assessing patient readiness. “As we learn more about how patients approach discharge, hospitalists’ understanding of patient needs beyond straightforward medical care will be crucial to having smoother transitions of care,” she said.

The researchers also explored pain control. As a health system, UCLA Medical Center has formed a multidisciplinary task force to optimize its approach to pain control. “If we can address comfort – for both patients at high risk of readmission and those that aren’t – we hope we can improve symptom control overall,” Dr. Busuttil said. “It’s not uncommon for patients to feel inadequate symptom control at discharge. While this is likely only one component of all the readmission pieces, a patient who feels that their symptoms are not controlled is likely to feel less ready for discharge. Increasing patient readiness, perhaps by increasing symptom control and improving communication regarding symptom management expectations, is a task that the hospitalist is well positioned to address.”

Dr. Ashley Busuttil

Dr. Ashley Busuttil

In addition, a focus group that included patient representatives was conducted to identify potential discharge paperwork enhancements. Patients were asked to identify opportunities for improvement in the health system’s discharge After Visit Summary (AVS). “We were surprised to learn that even though patients knew that they had follow-up appointments, they were unable to locate the follow-up appointment section on the AVS,” Dr. Busuttil said. “We also learned that the medication section was confusing. Efforts for an AVS revision are underway.”

The researchers also wanted to find out why patients may not use available outpatient resources, and assessed them for decisional conflict – a measure of certainty with decision making – when selecting from multiple options for accessing medical care if they were home postdischarge and began to feel ill again. “Patients with decisional conflict were more likely to state that they would go the emergency room rather than call their primary medical physician or visit an urgent care center,” Dr. Busuttil said.

The health system continues to screen patients for decisional conflict. “When positive, we provide bedside education on when to seek medical care through primary care, urgent care, or the emergency department,” Dr. Busuttil said. “We also provide patients with information on how to access each of these resources.”

While a prior discharge plan may have seemed ideal on paper, time and time again it’s not logistically possible for certain patients. “By having this knowledge gleaned from patient interviews, hospitalists are able to provide feedback to health systems regarding different options of outpatient care that may work for the different patient populations they serve,” Dr. Dowling said.

To understand why one particular patient population is being readmitted requires taking the time to understand that population, Dr. Dowling noted. “While many validated risk stratification tools are available, they may only serve as general guides,” she said. “To impact the population you serve, you must first understand the readmission process as it looks to them.”

Employing the HOSPITAL score

In another effort to reduce hospital readmissions, Jacques Donzé, MD, MSc, associate physician, Bern University Hospital, Switzerland, and research associate, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, and his colleagues used the HOSPITAL score to identify patients at high risk of 30-day potentially avoidable readmission.

To most efficiently reduce hospital readmissions, hospitals need to target complex and intensive discharge interventions for patients at high risk of potentially avoidable readmission who are more likely to benefit.2 “However, prior research indicates that clinical health care providers are not able to accurately identify which patients are at high risk for readmission,” Dr. Donzé said.

Dr. Jacques Donze

Dr. Jacques Donze

In their large international multicenter external validation study, Dr. Donzé and his colleagues found that the HOSPITAL score accurately predicted the risk of 30-day potentially avoidable readmissions. The HOSPITAL score is easy to use and can be calculated before discharge, which makes it a practical tool for identifying patients at high risk for preventable readmission and the timely administration of high-intensity interventions designed to improve transitions of care.2

Dr. Donzé believes that several factors may influence the performance of a prediction model, such as the initial selection of the potential predictors, the quality of the derivation method, including readily available predictors commonly available, and including reliable factors that aren’t subject to subjective evaluation. “All of these factors can play a role in the performance and generalizability of the HOSPITAL score,” he said.

When a patient is identified as high risk to be readmitted, hospitalists can take certain actions to prevent readmission. “Interventions are more likely to be effective when they include several components,” Dr. Donzé said. “These include follow-up phone calls and/or home visits, review of the patient’s medication list, patient education, and sending a discharge summary to the patient’s primary care physician in a timely manner. For now, enough evidence for a specific effective multimodal intervention to be generalizable to the majority of patients is lacking.”

Currently, the HOSPITAL score has been validated in approximately 180,000 patients in 14 hospitals across five countries and three continents – always showing good performance and generalizability. The HOSPITAL score includes seven variables readily available before hospital discharge, is easy to use, and is the most widely validated prediction model for readmission, Dr. Donzé said.

Before being implemented into practice, a score should ideally reach the highest level of validation, that is, show its clinical impact. “We expect that the score will not only be able to accurately predict high-risk patients, but using the score will also impact patient care by reducing readmissions when coupled with an appropriate intervention,” Dr. Donzé said.

In summary, research has shown that a variety of methods can be used to reduce hospital readmissions, including studying inpatient and outpatient physicians’ perspectives regarding factors contributing to readmission; interviewing patients regarding readmissions; and identifying patients at high risk of readmission using the HOSPITAL score.

Many researchers are continuing their studies in these areas.

Karen Appold is a medical writer in Pennsylvania.

Using hospitalist reflections as a means to reduce readmissions

Readmission studies and the development of readmission scoring systems and prediction tools rely on data from a large number of patients, typically extracted from administrative databases.

To complement this data, Deanne Kashiwagi, MD, consultant, Hospital Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., and her colleagues asked hospitalists to reflect upon the readmissions of patients for whom they cared to add insight into the culture of patient care transitions within the health system.

“We felt there was some value in considering these nuances of the local care environment, which may not be represented in studies drawing from large databases, as potential targets for readmission efforts,” she said.

Dr. Deanne Kashiwagi

Dr. Deanne Kashiwagi

Dr. Kashiwagi and her colleagues developed a chart review tool to guide hospitalists through reflection about their patients’ admissions and readmissions. “We included factors frequently cited in the literature as contributors to readmissions and added factors that our study group, after a chart review of 40 patients’ readmissions, identified as variables contributing to our own patients’ readmissions,” Dr. Kashiwagi said. “Some of these variables reflected our local care system, such as our staffing model, which led to some patients being cared for by more than two hospitalists during their admission. The study group considered such variables as potential contributors to our own group’s readmissions, but they were not necessarily common readmission risk factors identified in large-scale studies.”

Dr. Kashiwagi believes that including elements of local practice and culture was the strength of their work. “Groups interested in replicating this reflective process should consider including factors specific to their practices that may contribute to readmission,” she said.

Asking hospitalists to perform reviews has led to implementing changes. Physicians were prompted to schedule earlier follow-up appointments and nurse practitioners and physician assistants have worked to improve the quality of their discharge summaries. The exercise also engaged hospitalists to suggest system changes that might contribute to decreased readmissions, such as a geriatrician-run service (which was recently begun) to provide multidisciplinary acute geriatric care for hospitalized older adults.

“Although large-scale studies are clearly important, readmission review at a more granular level may have merit as well,” Dr. Kashiwagi said, noting that such reviews identify local practice factors that groups may quickly act upon to help decrease readmissions. “Hospitalists readily engaged in this reflective exercise, which yielded actionable information to decrease readmissions.”

In commenting on why a different similar study7 didn’t mimic the results of Mayo Clinic’s study, Dr. Kashiwagi said there were some differences in methodology that may explain the difference in readmission rates. “First, this group excluded patients on dialysis, which in our study was a common comorbidity of our readmitted patients,” she said. “It is also notable that the chart review tool was different. Perhaps there is less representation of local factors, unique to that hospitalist group and their practice culture, than on our review form. These investigators also discussed their readmissions at routine intervals. Additionally, their preintervention readmission rate was lower than Mayo Clinic’s group, and although the readmission rate trended downward postintervention, it did not reach statistical significance.”


1. Jencks SF, Williams MV, Coleman EA. Rehospitalizations among patients in the Medicare fee-for-service program. N Engl J Med. 2009;360(14):1418-28.

2. Donzé JD, Williams MV, Robinson EJ, et al. International validity of the HOSPITAL Score to predict 30-day potentially avoidable hospital readmissions. JAMA Intern Med. 2016 Apr;176(4):496-502.

3. Kashiwagi DT, Burton MC, Hakim FA, et al. Reflective practice: a tool for readmission reduction. Am J Med Qual. 2016 May;31(3):265-71.

4. Herzig SJ, Schnipper JL, Doctoroff L, et al. Physician perspectives on factors contributing to readmissions and potential prevention strategies: a multicenter survey. J Gen Intern Med. 2016 Nov;31(11):1287-93. Epub 2016 Jun 9.

5. Allaudeen N, Schnipper JL, Orav EJ, et al. Inability of providers to predict unplanned readmissions. J Gen Intern Med. 2011 Jul;26(7):771-6.

6. Busuttil A, Howard-Anderson J, Dowling EP, et al. Building a comprehensive patient-centered readmission reduction program [abstract]. J Hosp Med. 2016;11(suppl 1).

7. Rana V, Thapa B, Saini SC, et al. Self-reflection as a tool to increase hospitalist participation in readmission quality improvement. Qual Manag Health Care. 2016 Oct/Dec;25(4):219-24.

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