Practice Economics

The Earlier, the Better


Most hospitals work hard to increase the portion of discharges that occur early in the workday and decrease the number that occur in the afternoon or evening. In every case, hospitalists have an important role in making this happen.

In my April 2009 column (“Top O’ the Morning,” p. 53), I wrote about why this is important to hospitals and which strategies hospitalists could adopt. But this is still such a big issue for hospitalists that I thought I would elaborate on a few of the really simple ideas. Your HM group could implement most of the following strategies beginning next week, and you wouldn’t need months of meetings with other hospital departments.

But before I get to the ideas, I want to mention a couple of other things. First, I can’t resist pointing out that giving hospitalists a financial incentive for writing the majority of discharge orders by a certain time in the morning has met with mixed results, despite the fact that some institutions believe this approach is valuable. In the absence of computerized physician order entry (CPOE), it can be really difficult to track exactly when the doctor wrote the discharge order. And, more importantly, a financial incentive might discourage a hospitalist from discharging a patient this afternoon, and they might instead wait to discharge tomorrow morning—adding to length of stay and defeating the goal of the incentive.

It turns out that a lot has been written about throughput; just do an Internet search and pair “throughput” with terms like “hospital,” “hospitalist,” “ED,” etc. Remarkably, I haven’t been able to dig up much material that specifically addresses early-morning discharges, which is an important component of throughput.

Let’s turn our attention to some specific recommendations for increasing morning discharges. Remember, I’ve selected these because they’re easy to implement and won’t require HM groups to negotiate with others at the hospital.

Giving hospitalists a financial incentive for writing the majority of discharge orders by a certain time in the morning has met with mixed results. … A financial incentive might discourage a hospitalist from discharging a patient this afternoon, and they might instead wait to discharge tomorrow morning—adding to length of stay and defeating the goal of the incentive.

Write “Probable Discharge Tomorrow” Orders

Letting other staff know the anticipated discharge date via an order in the chart typically is more effective than writing the same information in the progress note section of the chart. Although a hospitalist should verbally communicate the anticipated discharge date with the patient’s nurse and discharge planner, it still is worthwhile to write an order, because it increases the chance all, or nearly all, staff (e.g., night nurses) will be aware of the plan and communicate the same message to the family.

Your group could establish a rule or financial incentive, such that all charts will be reviewed after discharge, and a certain portion (e.g., 85%) must have such an order written sometime prior to discharge. It doesn’t always need to be written on the day prior to discharge; instead, an order written on Monday could say “likely discharge on Wednesday or Thursday.” And, of course, there shouldn’t be a requirement that the patient actually be discharged on the day that was forecast.

Prepare the Day Prior

Typically, hospitalized-patient discharges are very time-consuming. Most discharges are complicated by last-minute medical or social loose ends that require attention. Routinely trying to uncover and address these on the evening prior to discharge will ensure that a larger percentage of patients will be discharged—and vacate their room—earlier the next day. Here is what this might look like:

On Tuesday, Dr. Guaraldi is wrapping up most work for the day. He stops by to see his patient, Mr. Schultz, to see if he is improving as expected. Indeed, Mr. Schultz is looking better and probably will be ready for discharge Wednesday morning. So, Dr. Guaraldi talks with Mr. Schultz and calls the patient’s daughter to answer any questions and concerns, ensuring no surprises by the Wednesday-morning discharge. When the daughter asks (as nearly all family members do) what time she should plan to pick up her dad, Dr. Guaraldi can suggest a time based on when he will be able to round in the morning. He also can arrange to have the discharge planning staff alerted if there are more complicated issues (e.g., arranging for professional transport home).

Dr. Guaraldi then dictates the discharge summary, addresses the discharge medicine reconciliation, and writes the prescriptions. In doing so, he might uncover some loose ends and might end up ordering a lab or imaging test to be done in the evening so the results will be available early Wednesday morning and won’t delay the routine discharge.

On Wednesday morning, Dr. Guaraldi rounds on Mr. Schultz early, finds the patient is improving as expected, and writes the discharge order. The whole visit takes only a few minutes, as most of the time-consuming work was completed the prior evening. In fact, because it is a relatively short visit, it is a lot easier for Dr. Guaraldi to arrange to round on Mr. Schultz early in the day (e.g., even on the way to see ICU patients), as the hospital’s chief medical officer is always asking him to do.

I hope this scenario doesn’t sound too difficult. (Another benefit of dictating discharge summaries the evening before discharge is that the typed document should be available the next morning, so the patient can have a copy to take with him at discharge.) Of course, it won’t apply to all patients, such as those patients whose discharges can’t be predicted.

Many hospitalists think arranging for discharge the evening before is impossible because “I’m just too spent at the end of a long day to stay late getting patients ready for discharge tomorrow!” But realize you won’t be doing any more work; you’re rearranging when you do the work. The time you spend arranging for discharge in advance will save you time and stress tomorrow. My own experience is that it is much easier to do all the discharge work the evening before than in the morning when I’m so busy and am being pulled in 10 different directions. Most morning discharge visits are relatively quick and painless, which is really valuable for increasing the efficiency and decreasing the stress of morning rounds.

The alert reader already has figured out there is a pretty big cost to doing the discharge work the evening before. Some patients won’t be able to discharge as planned (e.g., they have a fever overnight) and the preparations will have been in vain. My experience is that such “failed” discharges are reasonably common, but even when they occur, it is usually reasonable to use most of the original prescriptions and discharge summary, with an addendum as required. For example, Dr. Guaraldi could dictate an addendum stating:

“The patient originally was planned for discharge on Wednesday but had a temperature of 38.6 degrees Celsius the night before, so stayed in the hospital for two more days for … ”

Start Rounds Earlier

This strategy might be the most difficult for you and your HM group to arrange, but I propose it because you could do it without having to negotiate with a lot of other departments in the hospital. If your group currently has a day shift that starts at 8 a.m. with a team conference, you could instead start at 7 a.m. Your group could try to shorten the duration of the morning team conference, or eliminate it. Whether the need to get patients discharged early in the day is worth the complexity of rearranging your schedule will depend on the circumstances of your hospital and your group. TH

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988 and is co-founder and past president of SHM. He is a principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants, a national hospitalist practice management consulting firm ( He is also course co-director and faculty for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. This column represents his views and is not intended to reflect an official position of SHM.

Next Article:

   Comments ()