Practice Management

Does morning discharge really improve hospital throughput?


A more holistic view

John Nelson, MD, MHM, hospital medicine pioneer and management consultant, has been studying hospital throughput and policies to improve it for a long time. His 2010 column in The Hospitalist, “The Earlier the Better,” said attaching a financial incentive for hospitalists to discharge patients by a preset hour has produced mixed results.6 But Dr. Nelson offered some easy steps hospitalists can take to maximize earlier discharges, including to write “probable discharge tomorrow” as an order in the patient’s medical record.

Dr. John Nelson, cofounder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is codirector for SHM’s practice management courses.

Dr. John Nelson

The afternoon before a planned discharge, the hospitalist could talk to a patient’s family members about the discharge plan and order any outstanding tests to be done that evening to be ready for morning rounds – which he suggested should start by 7:00 a.m. The hospitalist could dictate the discharge summary the afternoon before. Even if a discharge can’t proceed as planned, the time isn’t necessarily wasted.

In a recent interview, Dr. Nelson noted that the movement to reduce average length of stay in the hospital has complicated the discharge picture by reducing a hospital’s flexibility. But he added that it’s still worth tracking and collecting data on discharge times, and to keep the conversation going. “Just don’t lose sight of the real goal, which is not DBN but optimal length-of-stay management,” he said.

Dr. Gundareddy said that, as his group has dealt with these issues, some steps have emerged to help manage discharges and throughput. “We didn’t have case management and social work services over the weekend, but when we added that support, it changed how our Mondays went.”

He encourages hospitalists to focus on the actual processes that create bottlenecks preventing throughput. “A good example of effective restructuring is lab testing. It’s amazing to think that you could have lab test results available for 7:00 a.m. rounds. There are areas that deserve more attention and more research regarding DBN. What is the impact of discharge before noon programs on the patients who aren’t being planned for discharge that day? Do they get neglected? I feel that happens sometimes.”

The COVID pandemic has further complicated these questions, Dr. Gundareddy said. “Early on in the pandemic, we were unsure how things were going with discharges, since all of the focus was on the COVID crisis. A lot of outpatient and surgical services came to a standstill, and there weren’t enough of the right kinds of beds for COVID patients. It was hard to align staff appropriately with the new clinical goals and to train them during the crisis.” Now, patients who delayed care during the pandemic are turning up at the hospital with greater acuity.

As with all incentives, DBN can have unintended consequences – especially if you monetize the practice, Dr. Verma said. “Most hospitalists are already working so hard – making so many decisions every day. These incentives could push decisions that aren’t in anybody’s best interests.”

Various groups have created comprehensive packages of protocols for improving transitions of care, he said. Organized programs to maximize efficiency of transitions and patient flow, including Project BOOST and Project RED (Re-Engineered Discharge) at Boston University Medical Center, are important sources of tools and resources. “But we should stop flogging hospitalists to discharge patients before noon,” Dr. Verma said, “Discharge is more complex than that. Instead, we should work to improve discharges in more holistic ways.”


1. Kirubarajan A et al. Morning discharges and patient length of stay in inpatient general internal medicine. J Hosp Med. 2021 Jun;16(6):333-8. doi: 10.12788/jhm.3605.

2. Shine D. Discharge before noon: An urban legend. Am J Med. 2015 May;128(5):445-6. doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2014.12.011.

3. Zorian A et al. Discharge by noon: Toward a better understanding of benefits and costs. J Hosp Med. 2021 Jun;16(6):384. doi: 10.12788/jhm.3613.

4. Wertheimer B et al. Discharge before noon: Effect on throughput and sustainability. J Hosp Med. 2015 Oct;10(10):664-9. doi: 10.1002/jhm.2412.

5. Wertheimer B et al. Discharge before noon: an achievable hospital goal. J Hosp Med. 2014 Apr;9(4):210-4. doi: 10.1002/jhm.2154.

6. Nelson J. The earlier, the better. The Hospitalist. 2010 May.


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