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Hospital visits increase under readmissions reduction program

August 23, 2019

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Rishi K Wadhera, Karen E Joynt Maddox, Dhruv S Kazi, Changyu Shen, Robert W Yeh
BMJ, August 12, 2019

Abstract

Objective: To determine any changes in total hospital revisits within 30 days of discharge after a hospital stay for medical conditions targeted by the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program (HRRP).

Design: Retrospective cohort study.

Setting: Hospital stays among Medicare patients for heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, or pneumonia between 1 January 2012 and 1 October 2015.

Participants: Medicare fee-for-service patients aged 65 or over.

Main outcomes: Total hospital revisits within 30 days of discharge after hospital stays for medical conditions targeted by the HRRP, and by type of revisit: treat-and-discharge visit to an emergency department, observation stay (not leading to inpatient readmission), and inpatient readmission. Patient subgroups (age, sex, race) were also evaluated for each type of revisit.

Results: Our study cohort included 3 038 740 total index hospital stays from January 2012 to September 2015: 1 357 620 for heart failure, 634 795 for acute myocardial infarction, and 1 046 325 for pneumonia. Counting all revisits after discharge, the total number of hospital revisits per 100 patient discharges for target conditions increased across the study period (monthly increase 0.023 visits per 100 patient discharges (95% confidence interval 0.010 to 0.035)). This change was due to monthly increases in treat-and-discharge visits to an emergency department (0.023 (0.015 to 0.032) and observation stays (0.022 (0.020 to 0.025)), which were only partly offset by declines in readmissions (−0.023 (−0.035 to −0.012)). Increases in observation stay use were more pronounced among non-white patients than white patients. No significant change was seen in mortality within 30 days of discharge for target conditions (−0.0034 (−0.012 to 0.0054)).

Conclusions: In the United States, total hospital revisits within 30 days of discharge for conditions targeted by the HRRP increased across the study period. This increase was due to a rise in post-discharge emergency department visits and observation stays, which exceeded the decline in readmissions. Although reductions in readmissions have been attributed to improvements in discharge planning and care transitions, our findings suggest that these declines could instead be because hospitals and clinicians have intensified efforts to treat patients who return to a hospital within 30 days of discharge in emergency departments and as observation stays.

Discussion

In this study of Medicare beneficiaries admitted to hospital for heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, and pneumonia in the US between 2012 and 2015, we found an increase in total hospital revisits within 30 days of discharge despite a reduction in 30 day readmissions. This increase was because of a rise in treat-and-discharge visits to an emergency department and observation stays within 30 days of discharge, which on national level, exceeded the decline in readmissions. Our finding of increased healthcare use during this period was more pronounced after we included all encounters within 30 days of discharge from the index hospital stay—rather than simply including the first revisit.

In the US, nationwide reductions in readmission rates for medical conditions targeted by the HRRP have been viewed as markers of improvements in quality of care. Our findings suggest that this success could be illusory because total hospital revisits after discharge are, in fact, rising. If reductions in readmissions were being driven by widespread improvements in discharge planning, care transitions and post-discharge care after a hospital stay (as intended by the HRRP), total hospital revisits within 30 days of discharge would also be expected to decline. Instead, much of the reduction in readmissions seems to reflect intensified efforts to manage patients who return to a hospital after discharge in observation units and emergency departments, potentially because the 30 day readmission measure used to evaluate hospital performance under the HRRP does not include these types of post-discharge encounters. These observations perhaps explain why previous studies have shown that inpatient quality of care delivered to patients admitted to hospital for heart failure or acute myocardial infarction do not differ at hospitals with high versus low readmission rates.

The increase in use of observation stays and emergency department visits (compared with inpatient hospital stays) among patients who return after discharge could be a good thing if it reflects that patients are, on average, returning with lower severity illness that can be safely managed in a non-admission setting. These revisits could also be beneficial to patient care. For instance, observation stays have been associated with higher patient satisfaction than inpatient hospital stays, although they can also result in higher out-of-pocket expenditures and more financial hardship for patients than inpatient hospital stays.

However, the increasing use of emergency department visits for post-discharge care could be problematic. Data have suggested that hospitals that tend to manage patients in emergency departments rather than admitting them for an inpatient stay have higher rates of early death after discharge. We observed no change in post-discharge mortality at 30 days for target conditions during the HRRP (from 2012 to 2015). However, several independent analyses have found that the implementation of the HRRP was associated with an increase in post-discharge mortality at 30 days among patients admitted for heart failure and pneumonia compared with pre-HRRP trends (pre-2010), and that this increase was concentrated entirely among patients not readmitted after discharge. Whether intensified efforts to manage returning patients in emergency departments and observation units explain increases in mortality observed in the years that preceded our study period is an important area for further research, given that this potential mechanism could explain increased mortality under the HRRP.

https://www.bmj.com…


Comment:

By Don McCanne, M.D.

Various policy innovations today are designed to try to reduce health care spending while supposedly improving quality, or at least not impairing it. This is one of those innovations. The Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program assesses financial penalties if patients are readmitted within thirty days of discharge.

In this study they looked at patents with heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, and pneumonia. These are patients who generally are quite ill. With the best of care, their post-discharge status can easily worsen thus warranting readmission to the hospital. Yet this is one more study that showed that, with the disincentive of a financial penalty, instead of being readmitted, the patients were often managed in emergency departments or under observation. In fact, the rise in post-discharge emergency department visits and observation stays exceeded the decline in readmissions. The authors also report, “hospitals that tend to manage patients in emergency departments rather than admitting them for an inpatient stay have higher rates of early death after discharge.” Also we should be very concerned about this statement buried in the abstract: “Increases in observation stay use were more pronounced among non-white patients than white patients.”

Although the prices charged may be different between a patient held in a hospital bed for observation as opposed to one formally admitted, it is likely that the actual costs of care rendered are not that much different, so are we really saving much money by this policy? Also patients are penalized if they are held under observation instead of being admitted since cost sharing is greater for outpatient services than it is for a readmission.

The shame is that the policy community and bureaucrats busy themselves with these experiments in policy innovations that largely provide disappointing results, while they reject any consideration of a policy innovation that would recover hundreds of billions of dollars in administrative waste: the single payer model of an improved Medicare for All. What drives this? Incompetence? Greed? Ego? Insanity? Whatever it is, we need to address it so that we can get on with reform that really does work.

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About the Commentator, Don McCanne

Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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