Safe transitions for indigent patients are a common, complex problem; HM can help lead hospital-community collaborations to improve outcomes
by Larry Beresford
Gregory Misky, MD, has been a hospitalist for 12 years, first at a community hospital and for the past seven years at the University of Colorado Denver. In recent years, his frustration has grown over the challenges of discharge planning, care transitions, and preventing readmissions for vulnerable, disadvantaged patients, including the uninsured, underinsured, and medically indigent.
“There’s a big elephant in the room that we’re not talking about, and that elephant is having babies,” he says. “Access is such a big problem for these patients and, as a hospitalist, it’s just not OK to me anymore. I need to be proactive about finding solutions.”
Dr. Misky’s concerns led him to do research with mentor Eric Coleman, MD, the university’s creator of the Care Transitions Program (www.caretransitions.org), studying patients who lacked primary-care physicians (PCPs) or timely PCP follow-up, and their resulting higher rates of readmissions.1 Dr. Misky also helped develop care pathways, including post-discharge care, for VTE patients, a “common, costly, and dangerous” condition. He is working with a hospitalist colleague to explore how electronic health records (EHR) might be used to help trigger post-discharge follow-up for at-risk patients.
University of Colorado Hospital (UCH), a 425-bed urban academic tertiary-care center, is not the designated safety net hospital for metro Denver, yet 28% to 32% of patients discharged from its medical services are uninsured, Dr. Misky says. He finds that academic physicians at UCH are not always able to take on large numbers of uninsured patients in their clinics, given the productivity demands they face, while the hospital has not been able to participate in systemwide, comprehensive national models for improving care transitions, such as SHM’s Project BOOST (www.hospitalmedicine.org/boost) or Boston Medical Center’s Project RED (www.bu.edu/fammed/projectred/).
Dr. Misky is in discussions with local community services, such as the Metro Community Provider Network (MCPN) of clinics for underserved patients, and exploring the development of a collaborative model for integrating post-hospital care between UCH and MCPN. “A lot of our ideas are still very exploratory—trying to get the key providers to the table to talk about what these approaches might look like,” Dr. Misky explains. “I’ve been part of ongoing meetings, and I think similar kinds of conversations are happening at many levels at UCH, but there’s not a unified, consensus approach to care transitions—and that’s a problem. But I’m in the midst of it all, trying to highlight the issues and explore solutions.”
Dr. Misky says every hospital-based provider—hospitalist, nurses, social workers—feels the same frustration and worry about the level of care when indigent patients are discharged to the community. Uninsured patients can run into problems post-hospitalization and return to the ED for their primary care because they lack other options, he says. “Without established liaisons to the community clinics,” he notes, “it can take three or four months for a new indigent patient to get seen at one.”
Hospitalists at San Francisco General Hospital, which is the safety-net provider for the Bay Area, are looking at similar issues, says Jeff Critchfield, MD, division chief of hospital medicine. “What we know about the uninsured is that they have a wealth of other challenges and barriers that they bring to the table,” he says. “First of all, un- and underinsured patients are more likely to have chronic illnesses, to be hospitalized for those illnesses, and then to be rehospitalized after discharge.”
Other issues disproportionally impacting uninsured or indigent patients include low literacy, low healthcare literacy, language barriers, cross-cultural barriers, substance abuse and mental health issues, homelessness or marginal housing, transportation barriers, and “social isolation, which also plagues our population and, I believe, places patients at risk, as does depression,” says Dr. Critchfield’s colleague Michelle Schneidermann, MD.
One-third of San Francisco General’s patients are uninsured and 40% have Medi-Cal (California’s version of Medicaid), which basically means they are underinsured.
“California has 19 safety-net hospitals, with 6% of the state’s inpatient beds but 50% of its uninsured population. So that’s what we do,” Dr. Critchfield says. But almost any hospital or hospitalist will see many of the same issues and problems, just not in the same proportions. “These are patients who can be most frustrating to hospitalists, requiring a disproportionate amount of our time,” he says, adding the greatest difficulty is helping these patients understand and follow post-discharge care plans. But if someone is ill enough to need acute hospitalization and is later discharged back to the street, readmission should not be a surprise. “We’ve done that experiment for many years, and we know how it turns out,” he says.
Dr. Schneidermann serves as medical director of San Francisco General’s medical respite program, a 45-bed emergency shelter that accepts homeless or marginally housed patients in need of follow-up care following discharge from any of the city’s acute-care hospitals. Research has shown that the programs can have a major effect on keeping discharged patients off the street, reducing their rates of rehospitalization by as much as 50%.2,3
“We know that homeless patients have longer lengths of hospital stay because their discharges are fraught with problems,” she says. A homeless patient hospitalized with a blood clot potentially could be kept in the hospital for a week while transitioning from heparin to Coumadin, while similar patients with community support might get discharged in a day.
“We are also fortunate to have a program called Healthy San Francisco,” which isn’t a health insurance program per se but since 2007 has provided access to outpatient, inpatient, and preventive care and medications for indigent patients, Dr. Schneidermann says. Sponsored by the city’s Department of Public Health, it is accessed through 32 medical homes located in both public and private clinics. The hospitalists’ goal is to have a follow-up appointment set with a receiving provider at the time of discharge. “It doesn’t always happen, but that’s the goal,” she explains. “Someone, by name, who has accepted the referral.”
Dr. Critchfield is running a randomized controlled trial of the hospital’s interventions to stem the tide of readmissions in patients 60 and older; many of these patients share the same indigent demographics of the rest of San Francisco General’s caseload, although most patients 65 and older qualify for Medicare. He describes the program as a hybrid of Project RED and Dr. Coleman’s Care Transitions Program, although it targets patients who speak English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin.
How many Americans are uninsured today is a moving target in the context of healthcare reform and its uncertain future, but the number increased to 53 million in 2007 from 42 million in 1998.4 The number of hospitalizations of uninsured patients also grew to 2.3 million from 1.8 million in the same time period, an increase of 31%, while total hospitalizations were increasing by 13%. A May 2011 research brief from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that uncompensated costs of hospital care incurred for uninsured patients total $73 billion per year.5
The homeless in shelters or on the street number about 630,000 on any given evening, and 1.5 million Americans experienced homelessness last year, says Sabrina Edgington, MSSW, program and policy specialist at the National Health Care for the Homeless Council in Nashville, Tenn. That said, 30% of the U.S. homeless have health insurance. Uninsured patients are less likely to receive necessary diagnostic tests and labs while in the hospital, and they face limited access and longer wait times—even in the facilities that are willing to take them.7 Research published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine finds that uninsured or Medicaid patients with three common conditions are more likely to die in the hospital than insured patients.8 A 2008 national sample survey of physicians found that “most U.S. physicians limit their care of medically indigent patients.”9 Other recent research suggests that readmission rates are affected by race and by site of care—with hospitals serving a higher proportion of black patients also having higher readmission rates.10
“This is not a hospital problem—it’s a communitywide problem. So there’s not just a hospital solution; it will take the whole village,” says Patricia Rutherford, RN, MS, vice president of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), which sponsors initiatives targeting care transitions.
The major national care-transitions programs that assist hospitals with addressing rehospitalizations all share similar objectives, Rutherford says, and all could be helpful in improving hospitals’ responses to indigent patients. The recognized programs include IHI’s STAAR (State Action on Avoidable Rehospitalizations: www.ihi.org/IHI/Programs), a multistate, multistakeholder quality improvement (QI) program; Project BOOST; Project RED; Dr. Coleman’s Care Transitions Project; the nursing-based Transitional Care Model (www.transitionalcare.info); and the American College of Cardiology’s Hospital to Home (www.cardiosource.org).
Most of these “well-established, evidence-based interventions,” including BOOST, will be given preference in applications for grants from the federal Community-Based Care Transitions Program (CCTP). The program recently committed $500 million to support community-based coalitions that include hospitals that are working with community partners to create seamless care transitions. “It’s most important that hospitalists are integrally involved with these care-transition teams—if not leading them,” Rutherford says.
BOOST’s approach is built on a major change-management strategy to reconstruct hospitals’ care transitions and discharge processes from the ground up, says Tina Budnitz, MPH, the project’s director at SHM (see “Discharge Improvement,” p. 7.) “The first thing we do, we literally get out pens and paper and chart what happens before patients get into the hospital and what happens after they are discharged, all of the services that touch them—or should,” she says. “The planning process occurs on many levels, with all of the stakeholders in the community looking at the process map and seeing where people fall off and end up readmitted.”
SHM is planning to launch several new BOOST cohorts for participating hospitals this fall, along with a wider range of technical support, Budnitz says.
Research on care transitions for uninsured or indigent patients “is not very robust,” observes Amy Boutwell, MD, MPP, a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital in Newton, Mass., former director of health policy at IHI and president of Collaborative Healthcare Strategies. “We don’t have the information we need, but there are great opportunities to improve our research base,” she explains.
Dr. Boutwell is a big fan of the “cross-setting team,” which brings together around a conference table professionals who work in different care settings, including the hospital, long-term care, and home-based care. She says it’s her job “to make sure patients are safe upon discharge, but if the community is under-resourced for primary-care physicians, if the patient is uninsured and we can’t find a PCP, the hospitalist and cross-setting team need to say, ‘We just can’t accept that.’ ”
A proper handoff should be done in a way that helps the patient and the physician providing the follow-up care. “But you won’t know what that is unless you ask the people you’re sending patients to how you’re doing,” she explains. “When we routinely review readmitted patients in cross-setting groups, it quickly breaks down the mindset that we in the hospital did everything we could have done to make the discharge successful.”
Dr. Boutwell recommends that hospitalists avoid thinking of these issues in a vacuum, as medical-clinical issues that only doctors can fix. “Because you can’t,” she says. “I would never ask an individual hospitalist to reduce readmissions. It requires a multidisciplinary, all-hands-on-deck approach by the hospital. This is different and more exciting than other quality-improvement efforts.” What’s more, she says, the day is coming—and soon—when failing to manage these readmissions will be a bad business proposition for the hospital (see “Value-Based Purchasing Raises the Stakes,” May 2011, p. 1).
IHI’s STAAR Initiative is working with coalitions of providers in Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, and Washington. One of those coalitions, Detroit CARR (Community Action to Reduce Rehospitalizations), convened by MPRO, a Michigan-based quality-improvement organization, is a great example of a cross-continuum team involving five inner-city hospitals, Dr. Boutwell says.
“CARR has really dug deeply into the needs of vulnerable patients in one of America’s most economically challenged communities, with a high proportion of Medicaid, uninsured, and disabled patients” and a shrinking population, she says. Many rehospitalizations are related to socio-economics. “The CARR coalition is meeting with the homeless shelters, the food pantries, and the faith-based agencies,” she says. “They’re really getting at the root of significant issues in their community.”
Nancy Vecchioni, RN, MSN, CPHQ, vice present of Medicare operations at MPRO, says CARR involves more than just healthcare providers; it also brings community agencies together with them to take ownership of the patient. Organizations that a year ago weren’t talking to each other are now meeting regularly to focus on the most vulnerable patients, reviewing cases of rehospitalized homeless patients, and sharing their experiences. Rehospitalized patients are being interviewed, using a prepared script (see Figure 1, p. 34), which allows the patient to tell their story. The information is shared within the coalition.
Each hospital has its own transition team, with post-acute providers, physicians, home health agencies, and community service providers, Vecchioni says. For patients who can’t get in to see a PCP within five days of discharge, some hospitals are opening continuity clinics. Others give patients three- to 30-day supplies of needed medications. “There’s no magic bullet—it’s just a different way of looking at how we do this work,” she adds. “Every day we see new barriers. But we’ve already seen a 5% overall reduction in readmissions. And I think hospitalists can be the champions and leaders of these efforts.”
Hospitalists have to raise the bar for themselves, Dr. Schneidermann says, “doing our best while recognizing we can only do so much. There is a lot we can learn from geriatrics, starting with truly embracing the multidisciplinary team.” If hospitalists feel like they are functioning in isolation, she says, they need to look around. “Are these kinds of interdisciplinary meetings happening? If so, join them. If not, light a fire. Convert your frustrating experiences with patients into action.” TH
Larry Beresford is a freelance medical writer based in California.
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