Patient Care

John Nelson: Post-Discharge Calls


John Nelson, MD, MHM

There are lots of places to learn methods to improve patient satisfaction, including my thoughts from the January 2009 issue. Run an Internet search on “improve patient satisfaction” to get a huge number of articles, many of which have useful information and inspiration.

If you’re in a high-functioning hospitalist group, you’ve already read a lot on the topic, listened to presentations by someone at your hospital and elsewhere, and reliably reported and analyzed satisfaction survey results including HCAHPS questions and others. Maybe you’ve even engaged a consultant to help.

You might already have in place a number of strategies, such as reliably providing a business card with your photo, always sitting down in the patient’s room, asking “Is there anything else I can do?” before ending your time with a patient, etc. You’re doing all these things and more, but perhaps you’ve barely moved the needle on your satisfaction scores.

Despite your efforts, I bet your hospitalist group’s aggregate score is among the lowest of any physician group at your hospital.

You’re not alone.

What can you do about this?

I’m lucky enough to practice with some of the smartest, most professional, and most personable hospitalists you could ever meet. Yet our satisfaction scores are among the lowest for physicians at our hospital. Despite all of the improvement strategies we put in place over the last few years, our scores have barely budged.

High-Value Strategy: Phoning Patients after Discharge

I’m lucky enough to practice with some of the smartest, most professional, and most personable hospitalists you could ever meet. Yet our satisfaction scores are among the lowest for physicians at our hospital. Despite all of the improvement strategies we put in place over the last few years, our scores have barely budged. But that all changed once we instituted a formal program of phoning patients after discharge. That produced the largest uptick in our scores we’ve ever seen.

I can’t guarantee that our results are generalizable. But I have all the anecdotal information I need to be willing to invest the resources to make the calls. They improve scores. Likely more than any other single strategy. And they seem to have a positive effect on all survey questions, from how well the doctor explained things (nearly always the lowest of the HCAHPS scores for hospitalists) to the patient’s opinion of the hospital food.

Though initially resistant to expending the time and energy to make the calls, most in our group have said that they regularly feel really gratified by the response they get from patients or families. I think it is much better if a hospitalist who cared for the patient makes the calls, and I suspect (I have no proof) that calls made by a nurse or clerk are much less effective at improving patient satisfaction. And the call can serve as a valuable clinical encounter to briefly troubleshoot a problem or review a test result that was pending at discharge.

Simple Strategies

  • More than 80% of these calls should last less than three minutes. Most patients or family members will report things are going OK and thank you profusely for the call. “No doctor has ever called before,” many will say. “Can we get you the next time Mom is hospitalized?”
  • You could reduce the number of calls needed if you limit them to patients eligible for a survey; this typically is only about half of a hospitalist’s patient census. For example, patients on observation status and those discharged somewhere other than to home (e.g. to a skilled-nursing facility) are not eligible for a survey.
  • It’s usually best not to tell a patient or family to expect the call. Surprising them makes them more delighted when you do call, and a patient told to expect a call but doesn’t get one will be less satisfied than if never told to expect it. Best if no one at the hospital knows you’re making the calls, because someone might brag about you and tell the patient to expect the call.
  • For patients seen by several hospitalists, decide ahead of time which doctor makes the call. The doctor who discharged the patient is probably the simplest protocol.
  • Develop a system to track patients who have been discharged. Every morning, we get a printout of all patients discharged the prior day. We try to call all patients the day after discharge to ensure that we reach them before they’ve had a chance to complete a satisfaction survey and before the discharging doctor rotates off.
  • Develop a protocol to document the calls. Calls that lead to any new advice or therapies (e.g. see your primary-care physician sooner than planned) must be documented in the medical record, e.g., by dictating an addendum to the discharge summary. Don’t let the system get too complicated or keep you from making the calls.
  • Use your judgment about whether to call the patient or just call a family member directly; it’s often better to do the latter.
  • If you reach a voicemail (about 50% of the calls I make), leave a message and don’t keep calling back to reach a person.

Sample Scripts

Here are some simple scripts to use for post-discharge calls. If you reach the patient or family member:

  • “This is Dr. X from Superior Hospital. I was just thinking about you/your mother/your father and wanted to know how things have gone since you/she/he left the hospital.”
  • Ask about something related to the reason for their stay. “How is your appetite?” or “You haven’t had any more fever, have you?” or “Have you made your appointment with Dr. PCP yet?”
  • “I hope things go really well for you, but if you ever need the hospital again, we’d be happy to care for you at Superior Hospital.”

If you get a voicemail:

  • “This is Dr. X from Superior Hospital. I’ve been thinking about you/your mother/father since you/she/he left the hospital, and I am calling just to check on how things are going.” (For HIPPA reasons, don’t use the patient’s name when leaving a voicemail.)
  • Mention some medical concern specific to the patient, e.g., “Your culture test turned out OK and I hope you’ve been able to get the antibiotic I prescribed.”
  • “You don’t need to call me back, but if you have questions or want to provide an update, I can be reached at 555-123-4567.” (It’s very important to include this last sentence and a number where you can be reached. If omitted, many patients/families will think you must have called to convey something really important and will be distressed until able to reach you.)

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988. He is co-founder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is co-director for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course.

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