News Release
April 15, 2013

Penn Study Shows One Quarter of Patients Discharged from Hospitals Return for Emergency Care Within 30 Days

Large Numbers of Emergency-Department Visits Go Unreported in Calculating Hospital Readmissions

PHILADELPHIA — A study led by researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University School of Medicine has found that nearly one quarter of patients may return to the emergency department within 30 days of being discharged from a hospitalization. None of these emergency room visits that do not lead to subsequent admission are included in calculating hospital readmission rates, which are a key focus of health care cost containment and quality improvement efforts. The findings are published in Annals of Emergency Medicine.

The authors say, the number of emergency department visits following hospital discharge may be even higher than the rate they found, since data collection was restricted to the data from a single “safety-net” hospital in Boston, meaning there was no way to determine whether patients were treated at another hospital’s emergency department during the period of the study.

“Hospital readmissions within 30 days of inpatient discharge are frequent and costly,” said the study’s lead author, Kristin Rising, MD, a fellow in the Center for Emergency Care Policy & Research in the department of Emergency Medicine in Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. “But current methods of measuring readmissions are missing a large part of the picture since they only include inpatient-to-inpatient hospitalization and ignore return visits to the emergency department that do not result in admissions.”

The findings are important because a large number of U.S. patients receive their care from safety-net institutions like the one studied, the authors note. Safety-net hospital patients are disproportionately likely to be beneficiaries of Medicare and Medicaid, and they’re more likely to be uninsured and not have a family physician -- and thus more apt to turn to the emergency department for care when they experience complications after being discharged from the hospital.

The federal government, principally the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, has invested heavily in policies, incentives, technical assistance, and new payment models to prompt providers to reduce avoidable rehospitalization. For example, under pay-for-performance, hospitals are financially penalized for readmissions that occur within 30 days of discharge. As a result, they have undertaken a number of steps to reduce readmissions, including patient and family education, nurse check-ins, and even telemonitoring once patients return home.

A major implication of the study is that emergency department clinicians should play an active role in efforts to reduce avoidable hospital use. “The large number of patient visits to the emergency department shortly after discharge -- and the fact that emergency departments are increasingly the primary source of hospital admissions -- means that at least part of the solution to reducing readmissions will rest with clinicians in the emergency department who are making decisions about whether to admit patients to the hospital,” said Rising. The question of how ED providers can be most effective in breaking the readmission cycle depends upon determination of patients’ greatest needs at time of ED presentation, she adds.

The study found that nearly half of return visits — 46 percent — did lead to subsequent rehospitalization, which means they are included in readmission data. Rising and her colleagues found that congestive heart failure was the primary diagnosis for return emergency department visits with both subsequent discharge and subsequent readmission. After heart failure, the clinical patterns diverge: the top three diagnoses for return emergency-department visits with subsequent discharge were diabetes with complications, complications of a device, and pneumonia. In contrast, the top three diagnoses for return emergency-department visits with subsequent readmission were complications of a device, sickle cell anemia, and abdominal pain. “These findings indicate that initiatives to address recurrent hospital use may need to vary, depending on the types of recurrent visits being targeted,” said Rising.

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Penn Medicine is one of the world's leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $4.3 billion enterprise.

The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top five medical schools in the United States for the past 17 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $392 million awarded in the 2013 fiscal year.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System's patient care facilities include: The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania -- recognized as one of the nation's top "Honor Roll" hospitals by U.S. News & World Report; Penn Presbyterian Medical Center; Chester County Hospital; Penn Wissahickon Hospice; and Pennsylvania Hospital -- the nation's first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional affiliated inpatient care facilities and services throughout the Philadelphia region include Chestnut Hill Hospital and Good Shepherd Penn Partners, a partnership between Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network and Penn Medicine.

Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2013, Penn Medicine provided $814 million to benefit our community.

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