Meanwhile, between 2007 and 2015, observation stays for targeted conditions increased from 2.6% to 4.7% and from 2.5% to 4.2% for non-targeted conditions. There was a steady increase across the entire analysis period, with no significant change pre- and post-ACA.
“Readmissions seem to be more related to passage of the Affordable Care Act than observation,” Zuckerman says. Changes in observation rate are likely due to other factors, such as confusion over Medicare recovery audit contractors, the study authors conclude.
Whether the drop in readmission rates without related increase in observation is tied to improved patient health is still unknown, as Dr. Jha explains in his blog, An Ounce of Evidence. He believes it is “flatly incorrect” to assume lower readmission rates mean better patient outcomes “because readmissions are a utilization measure, a measure of integration and accountability, not a patient outcome measure, not a state of health,” he explains.
While the current study does not address this, Zuckerman says her team is interested in understanding whether overall health measures are changing.
“A hospital is not always a bad thing,” Dr. Jha says. “Sometimes they’re just what a patient needs.”
Dr. Sheehy is particularly interested in why, after October 2012, the steep drop in readmissions slowed down. Probably, she says, much of the low hanging fruit was plucked. But it suggests there is still a population of patients facing higher-than-expected readmissions, and researchers would be wise to understand who they are and how they might be better served.
“The next step is looking at people who are still being readmitted,” she says. TH
Kelly April Tyrell is a freelance writer in Madison, Wis.
- Zuckerman RB, Sheingold SH, Orav EJ, Ruhter J, Epstein AM. Readmissions, observation, and the Hospital Readmissions Reduction Program [published online ahead of print April 21, 2016]. N Engl J Med. doi:10.1056/NEJMsa1513024.
- Jencks SF, Williams MV, Coleman EA. Rehospitalizations among patients in the Medicare fee-for-service program. N Engl J Med. 2009;360(14):1418-1428.
- Himmelstein D, Woolhandler S. Quality improvement: ‘become good at cheating and you never need to become good at anything else.’ Available at: http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2015/08/27/quality-improvement-become-good-at-cheating-and-you-never-need-to-become-good-at-anything-else/. Published August 27, 2015. Accessed April 15, 2016.
- Noel-Miller C, Lind K. Is observation status substituting for hospital readmission? Available at: http://healthaffairs.org/blog/2015/10/28/is-observation-status-substituting-for-hospital-readmission/. Published October 25, 2016. Accessed April 15, 2016.
- Zuckerman R. Reducing avoidable hospital readmissions to create a better, safer health care system. Available at: http://www.hhs.gov/blog/2016/02/24/reducing-avoidable-hospital-readmissions.html. Published February 24, 2016. Accessed April 15, 2016.