Tips Toward Better Clinical Summaries


“I recently discharged a complex patient from the hospital, and I was shocked to see the poor quality of his clinical summary,” says Erin Sarzynski, MD, MS, of Michigan State University’s Department of Family Medicine. This observation drove the research underlying the paper she co-wrote titled “Opportunities to Improve Clinical Summaries for Patients at Hospital Discharge,” published in BMJ Quality & Safety.

The problem, the paper lays out, is that, “presently, it is unclear whether clinical summaries include relevant content or whether healthcare organizations configure their EHRs to generate content in a way that promotes patient self-management after hospital discharge.”

As a first step toward improving these documents, Dr. Sarzynski worked with a team to evaluate 100 clinical summaries generated at two Michigan hospitals based on content, organization, and understandability. They became aware of systemic problems.

“Clinical summaries are produced from templates, but physicians’ workflows do not prompt them to preview the document before the nurse prints it to review with the patient,” Dr. Sarzynski says. “Clinical summaries are lengthy yet omit key discharge information. They are poorly organized, written at the 8th- to 12th-grade reading level, and score poorly on assessments of understandability and actionability.

“Medication lists illustrate a key safety issue resulting from poor-quality clinical summaries; for example, we routinely send patients home without parameters for sliding-scale insulin.”

The study highlights opportunities to improve clinical summaries for guiding patients’ post-discharge care.

“We developed an audit tool based on the Meaningful Use view-download-transmit objective and the SHM Discharge Checklist (content); the Institute of Medicine recommendations for distributing easy-to-understand print material (organization); and five readability formulas and the Patient Education Materials Assessment Tool,” the authors write.

“If possible, hospitalists should preview their patients’ clinical summaries before printing—it’s an opportunity to ensure key discharge information is correct and appropriately emphasized,” Dr. Sarzynski says.


  1. Sarzynski E, Hashmi H, Subramanian J, et al. Opportunities to improve clinical summaries for patients at hospital discharge. BMJ Qual Saf. doi:10.1136/bmjqs-2015-005201.

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