Hospitals nationwide face significant capacity constraints in emergency departments. High hospitalization rates can have a ripple effect, leading to long wait times, frequent diversion of patients to other hospitals, and higher patient-care expenses. However, a sizable number of inpatient admissions can be prevented through dedicated clinical observation units, or COUs. Such a strategy is likely to be more efficient, can result in shorter lengths of stay, and can decrease health-care costs.1
Also known as clinical decision units, “obs” units, or short-stay observation units, these hospital-based units lend themselves as a feasible solution. Many of the COU success stories come from “chest pain” units, along with ED-based observation units. Over time, the COUs have been expanded to include many more conditions and have enjoyed success when dealing with asthma exacerbations, transient ischemic attacks, bronchiolitis in pediatric populations, and congestive-heart-failure exacerbation, to name a few.
Most COUs use a window of six to 24 hours to carry out triaging, diagnosing, treating, and monitoring the patient response. Anytime before the 24-hour mark, a decision is made whether to discharge or admit the patient. The success of dedicated COUs relies heavily on strong leadership, strict treatment protocols, and well-defined inclusion/exclusion criteria.
COU utilization has been well received by several professional bodies. Both emergency medicine physicians and hospitalists are natural key players in the widespread utilization of COUs. SHM, in a white paper, concluded: “Collaboration between hospitalists, emergency physicians, hospital administrators, and academicians will serve not only to promote outstanding observation care, but also to focus quality improvement and research efforts for the observation unit of the 21st century.”2 The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), in its position statement, said the “observation of appropriate ED patients in a dedicated ED observation area, instead of a general inpatient bed or an acute care ED bed, is a ‘best practice’ that requires a commitment of staff and hospital resources.”3
As promising as the COUs appear, it is estimated that only one-third of hospitals have them in place.4 And while much of the COU story is good, there are concerns with the patient-care model.
Instinctively, a COU is a win-win proposition for all stakeholders. Essentially, many see these units as a fine blend of clinical care, fiscal responsibility, and patient accountability. Among the benefits:
Reduced admissions. On average, the admission rates from ED to inpatient services are 13.3%.5 In contrast, in hospitals that have a robust COU in place, the admission rates are much lower. As an example, Cook County Hospital in Chicago in the mid-1990s saw a decline in the admission rates from the emergency room following implementation of a COU, along with an increase in bed capacity due to the efficient, protocol-driven approach that goes along with successful ED observation units.6 With well-structured and managed observation units, such a reduction in hospitalization rates has been shown, is reproducible, and is achievable.
Improved case-mix multiplier. Inpatient reimbursements from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and private insurers frequently are tied to the acuity of care a hospital provides. Critical to making that determination is the case mix that a given hospital sees. Usually, the more complex patients a hospital admits, the higher the reimbursements are. With a successful COU, a hospital can expect a case-mix multiplier representing patients with greater complexity and higher acuity.
What a successful COU essentially does is lead to the admission of patients with greater comorbidities—those who are sicker than the average patient. In doing so, COUs also facilitate safe discharges of the patients who do not necessarily need to be admitted. As an average, the cohort of patients who are admitted as inpatients then consists of patients who are sick enough and absolutely need to be admitted.