Patients who return to long-term care, therefore, need careful transfer of information.
Nursing homes tell Dr. Merrens’ team that there is not enough practical information on the discharge summary about the patient’s current functional abilities. In response, the hospitalists included a section in their discharge documentation that summarizes the patient’s status, answering questions regarding the patient’s mental capacity, her ability to feed herself, her last bowel movement, her contact at the hospital in the event of a post-discharge emergency, and her designated power of attorney (if such a form was signed at the hospital).
At and After Discharge: Communicate with Patients and Families
Communication at the time of discharge involves, again, telling patients what’s next: Clarifying the use and potential side effects of medications, explaining when the patient can resume normal activities, providing the plan for and benefits of any occupational or physical therapy, and emphasizing the importance of follow-up. But it is also a time when patients should be told that they will need to “serve as expert witnesses to their care.”5
Tom Delbanco, MD, chief of the Division of General Medicine and Primary Care at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, who has written extensively about communications and hospital medicine, reminds hospitalists that when it comes to getting feedback for quality improvement, it is far more helpful to gather patients’ self-reports than their ratings. Practitioners of hospital medicine, he adds, have an imperative not only to inquire into patient experiences, but also to catalog them and share findings with colleagues.
The Picker Institute (Boston), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of patient-centered healthcare, found that only one in 64 hospitals participating in its first national survey of hospitalized patients could be judged as particularly adept at preparing patients for discharge.5 What the staff were doing differently at that one hospital was very simple: They asked the patients and families to write down any questions they had before they went home; discharge occurred only after all those questions were answered.
Although post-discharge communication involves talking to and instructing patients, it also involves listening and watching for how well patients receive these communications. In the discharge conversation, patients may be groggy from too much or too little sleep, heavily medicated or coming off of major narcotics or general anesthesia, experiencing pain, suffering from anxiety or delirium, or just mentally disoriented from the stress of the hospital experience.5-8
Calkins and colleagues surveyed 99 patients to determine any difference in perceptions between patients and their attending physicians regarding the patients’ understanding of the treatment plan after hospitalization.6 Physicians reported spending more time discussing post-discharge care than did patients, and the doctors believed that 89% of patients understood the potential side effects of their medications when only 57% of the patients reported that they had.
Discharge summaries given directly to patients can help with comprehension and compliance.1 Telephone follow-up is also a valuable tool and, along with a chance to provide answers and encouragement, gives the patient a feeling of being cared for.1 Several studies have shown benefit in phone follow-up, providing a chance for hospitalists to review new test results, clarify misunderstandings, and encourage compliance, as well as to learn any unexpected outcomes, treatment failures, or side effects.9
Written instructions are imperative. One person should be assigned this duty and, on a standardized form, should provide details, not just when and how to call the primary care physician. The bare bones of a summary are not enough—especially if there was not a competent family member present at the final discharge conversation. Further, in many cases, questions arise after the patient is home, when a family member, a nurse, or the patient herself may have questions, particularly about medications.