Quality

Lost in Transition


 

It’s been nearly two decades since I graduated from medical school. I think back and I honestly do not remember any lectures about transitions of care.

During residency, I remember some attending physicians would insist that when I discharged patients from the hospital, the patients had to leave with post-discharge appointments in hand. Like any diligent intern, I did as I was told. I telephoned the administrative assistants in clinic and booked follow-up appointments for my patients. I always asked for the first available appointment. Why? Because that was what my senior resident told me to do. I suspect he learned that from his resident as well.

Sometimes the appointment was scheduled for the week following discharge; other times it was six months later. I honestly didn’t give it much thought. There was a blank on the discharge paperwork and I filled it in with a date and time. I was doing my job—or so I thought.

At most teaching hospitals across the country, I suspect we still rely on trainees to book follow-up appointments for patients. At hospitals without trainees, I suspect some of this responsibility falls on nurses and unit coordinators. Again, I wonder how often these people are actually in a position to schedule an appointment that the patient is likely to keep—or whether they are filling in a box on a checklist like I used to do.

Can you imagine if someone just gave you a slip of paper today telling you when to show up to get your teeth cleaned without consulting your schedule? How about scheduling the oil change for your car at a garage 100 miles away? Seems pretty silly, doesn’t it? Nothing about it seems customer-centric or cost-efficient.

With such a system in place, why are we surprised when patients do not show up for their follow-up appointments? When the patient presents to the ED later and is readmitted to the hospital, we label them as “non-compliant” because they failed to show up for their follow-up appointment.

Inefficient, Ineffective, Inappropriate

There are multiple problems with the above situation. The first problem: Why are doctors calling to schedule follow-up appointments in the first place? Do we ask airline pilots to serve refreshments? I suppose they could, but I’d rather they concentrate on flying the plane. It also seems like an awful waste of money and resources when we could accomplish the same feat with less-expensive airline attendants who are better trained to interact with passengers.

At most teaching hospitals across the country, I suspect we still rely on trainees to book follow-up appointments for patients. At hospitals without trainees, I suspect some of this responsibility falls on nurses and unit coordinators. Again, I wonder how often these people are actually in a position to schedule an appointment that the patient is likely to keep—or whether they are filling in a box on a checklist like I used to do.

Common Problem?

How do other industries address this issue? Well, many utilize customer service representatives to help consumers book their appointments. Some industries have advanced software, which allows consumers to book their own appointment online. I have to tell you that I am chuckling as I write this. I’m chuckling not because this is funny—I am just amazed that something that is so common sense is not utilized consistently across the hospital industry. When was the last time you actually called a hotel to book a room? Most of us find it so much more convenient to book airline tickets or hotel rooms online.

If we were to create a system with the consumer’s satisfaction and cost in mind, would you rely on trainees, nurses, or unit coordinators to book follow-up appointments? I suppose Hypothetical System 2.0 would include consumer representatives speaking with patients to book appointments. Hypothetical System 3.0 would allow patients and/or a family member to book the appointment online.

I can tell you that folks at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, where I work, have given this some thought. We are nowhere near a 3.0 version, but we do rely on professional appointment-makers to work with our hospitalized patients to book follow-up appointments. Inpatient providers put in the order online requesting follow-up appointments for their hospitalized patients. The online application asks the provider to specify the requests. Does the patient need follow-up with specialists, as well as their primary outpatient provider? The inpatient provider can specify the window of time in which they recommend follow-up for the patient. If I want my patient to follow up with their primary-care physician (PCP) within one week and with their cardiologist within two weeks, the appointment-maker will work with the patient and the respective doctors’ offices to make this happen. I am contacted only if any issues arise.

All of this information is provided to the patient with their other discharge paperwork. Some of you might be asking: How can the hospital afford to pay for this software and for the cadre of professional appointment-makers? I am wondering how hospitals can afford not to. It’s like worrying about the cost of a college degree until you realize how difficult it is trying to get a job without one.

Part of the PCP “access” problem we have in this country is due to the fact that not every patient shows up for scheduled appointments. Our appointment-makers minimize the “no show” rate because, by speaking with patients about their schedules, they are providing appointments to patients with knowledge that they are likely to make the appointment. One of the things we learned at Beth Israel was that our trainees were sometimes requesting appointments for patients within one week of discharge when I knew darn well that the patient was unlikely to make that appointment because the patient most likely would still be at rehab.

Prior to this system, we also had the occasional PCP who was upset because we booked their patient’s follow-up with a specialist who was outside that PCP’s “inner circle” of specialists. How in the world are any of us supposed to remember this information?

Well, our professional appointment-makers utilize this information as part of the algorithm they follow when booking appointments for patients. As our nation moves towards a value-based purchasing system for healthcare, we don’t need to recreate the wheel; we can adopt proven practices from other cost-effective industries—and we can improve customer satisfaction.

I am interested in hearing how appointments are arranged for your hospitalized patients. Send me your thoughts at JosephLi@hospitalmedicine.org.

Dr. Li is president of SHM.

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