Public Policy

Medicare study evaluates impact of U.S. Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program

Research offers evidence against calls to curtail the program



Among Medicare beneficiaries admitted to the hospital between 2008 and 2016, there was an increase in postdischarge 30-day mortality for patients with heart failure, but not for those with acute myocardial infarction or pneumonia.

Dr. Rohan Khera of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas.

Dr. Rohan Khera

The finding comes from an effort to evaluate the use of services soon after discharge for conditions targeted in the U.S. Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP), and patients’ outcomes.

“The announcement and implementation of the HRRP were associated with a reduction in readmissions within 30 days of discharge for heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, and pneumonia, as shown by a decrease in the overall national rate of readmissions,” first author Rohan Khera, MD, and colleagues wrote in a study published online Jan. 15, 2020, in the British Medical Journal (doi:10.1136/bmj.l6831).

“Concerns existed that pressures to reduce readmissions had led to the evolution of care patterns that may have adverse consequences through reducing access to care in appropriate settings. Therefore, determining whether patients who are seen in acute care settings, but not admitted to hospital, experience an increased risk of mortality is essential.”

Dr. Khera, a cardiologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas, and colleagues limited the analysis to Medicare claims data from patients who were admitted to the hospital with heart failure, acute myocardial infarction (MI), or pneumonia between 2008 and 2016. Key outcomes of interest were: (1) postdischarge 30-day mortality; and (2) acute care utilization in inpatient units, observation units, and the ED during the postdischarge period.

During the study period there were 3,772,924 hospital admissions for heart failure, 1,570,113 for acute MI, and 3,131,162 for pneumonia. The greatest number of readmissions within 30 days of discharge was for heart failure patients (22.5%), followed by acute MI (17.5%), and pneumonia (17.2%).

The overall rates of observation stays were 1.7% for heart failure, 2.6% for acute MI, and 1.4% for pneumonia, while the overall rates of emergency department visits were 6.4% for heart failure, 6.8% for acute MI, and 6.3% for pneumonia. Cumulatively, about one-third of all admissions – 30.7% for heart failure, 26.9% for acute MI, and 24.8% for pneumonia – received postdischarge care in any acute care setting.

Dr. Khera and colleagues found that overall postdischarge 30-day mortality was 8.7% for heart failure, 7.3% for acute MI, and 8.4% for pneumonia. At the same time, postdischarge 30-day mortality was higher in patients with readmissions (13.2% for heart failure, 12.7% for acute MI, and 15.3% for pneumonia), compared with those who had observation stays (4.5% for heart failure, 2.7% for acute MI, and 4.6% for pneumonia), emergency department visits (9.7% for heart failure, 8.8% for acute MI, and 7.8% for pneumonia), or no postdischarge acute care (7.2% for heart failure, 6.0% for acute MI, and 6.9% for pneumonia). Risk adjusted mortality increased annually by 0.05% only for heart failure, while it decreased by 0.06% for acute MI, and did not significantly change for pneumonia.

“The study strongly suggests that the HRRP did not lead to harm through inappropriate triage of patients at high risk to observation units and the emergency department, and therefore provides evidence against calls to curtail the program owing to this theoretical concern (see JAMA 2018;320:2539-41),” the researchers concluded.

They acknowledged certain limitations of the study, including the fact that they were “unable to identify patterns of acute care during the index hospital admission that would be associated with a higher rate of postdischarge acute care in observation units and emergency departments and whether these visits represented avenues for planned postdischarge follow-up care. Moreover, the proportion of these care encounters that were preventable remains poorly understood.”

Dr. Khera disclosed that he is supported by the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health. His coauthors reported having numerous disclosures.

SOURCE: Khera et al. BMJ 2020;368:l6831.

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