Each transition is a major decision point in the course of a patient’s hospitalization; each transition also presents a time of heightened vulnerability (e.g., potential communication breakdowns, medication errors, patient anxiety or confusion, etc.). In fact, according to a Transitions of Care Consensus Policy Statement published in 2009 by SHM and five other medical societies, handoffs are ubiquitous in HM, with significant patient safety and quality deficiencies in handoffs existing in the current system.3
Poor communication at the time of handoff has been implicated in near-misses and adverse events in a variety of healthcare contexts, including 70% of hospital sentinel events studied by The Joint Commission, which named standardized handoffs (with an opportunity for interactive communication) as a National Patient Safety Goal in 2006.4 The federal government is studying care transitions, supporting demonstration projects for Medicare enrollees, and including readmission rates in national hospital report card data.
“Transitions of care and handoffs are a huge focus right now because of the increased fragmentation of care in the United States. Hospitalists are in charge of a greater percentage of hospitalized patients, which means more coordination of care is needed,” says Vineet Arora, MD, MA, FHM, assistant professor of medicine and associate director of the internal-medicine residency at the University of Chicago, and chair of the SHM task force on handoffs.
Inadequate communication and poor care transitions can undermine hospitalists’ best care-planning efforts, erode patients’ and families’ confidence and satisfaction with hospital care, and leave primary-care physicians (PCPs) feeling unsatisfied with the relationship. As many as 1 in 5 Medicare beneficiary hospitalizations result in a readmission within 30 days, and while not all of these are preventable, far too many are.5 Another prospective cohort study found that 1 in 5 patients discharged from the hospital to the home experienced an adverse event within three weeks of discharge.6 Complex comorbidities, advanced age, unknown PCP, and limited healthcare literacy present hospitalists with extremely difficult transitions.
Patient safety and cost control are the linchpins to national efforts to improve transitions of care. Dr. Arora recently coauthored an original research paper, which will be published in the Journal of Hospital Medicine in September, showing older hospitalized patients are twice as likely to report problems after discharge if their PCPs were not aware they were hospitalized.
“With escalating healthcare costs, people are looking at ways to save money and reduce redundant care,” Dr. Arora explains, pointing out, as an example, repeated tests resulting from inadequate communication between healthcare providers.
The System Must Change
“All of the effort we put into saving someone’s life—the years of experience, training, medical school, and residency—all of it comes to bear on that hospitalized patient. And it can all be unraveled at the time of discharge if it’s not handled properly,” says Arpana Vidyarthi, MD, a hospitalist and director of quality at the University of California at San Francisco.
Dr. Vidyarthi views in-hospital and discharge transitions as integrally related. “The analysis is similar, even if different techniques may be needed,” she says, adding that, fundamentally, it involves having a system that allows people—or forces them—to do the “right thing.”
That’s why achieving effective care transitions will require more than just a standardized tool or process, Dr. Vidyarthi says. “This is about understanding the ways people communicate and finding ways to train them to communicate better,” she says. “The problem we have is not a lack of information, but how to communicate what, to whom, and when.”