Why Hospitalists Should Provide Patients with Discharge Summaries


I continue to believe that hospitalists should routinely provide patients a copy of their discharge summary. I made the case for this in a 2006 column (“Keeping Patients in the Loop,” October 2006, p. 74), but I don’t see the idea catching on. I bet this simple act would have all kinds of benefits, including at least modest reductions in overall health-care expenditures and readmissions.

The whole dynamic of this issue seems to be changing as a result of “patient portals” allowing direct access to review test results and, in some cases, physician documentation. Typically, these are integrated with or at least connected to an electronic health record (EHR) and allow a patient, and those provided access (e.g. the password) by the patient, to review records. My own PCP provides access to a portal that I’ve found very useful, but I think, like most others, it doesn’t provide access to physician notes.

So there still is a case to be made for hospitalists (and all specialties) to provide copies of the discharge summary directly to patients and perhaps other forms of documentation as well.

Preparing a discharge summary the night before anticipated discharge can have many advantages, including improving discharge times the next morning. You can prepare the summary after routine rounding, when interruptions are less likely.


I think all discharge summaries should be completed before the patient leaves the hospital and amended as needed to capture any last-minute changes and details. The act of generating the summary often leads the discharging doctor to notice, and have a chance to address, important details that may have dropped off the daily problem list. Things like the need to recheck a lab test to ensure normalization prior to discharge, or make arrangements for outpatient colonoscopy to pursue the heme-positive stool found on admission, have sometimes slipped off the radar during the hospital stay and can be caught when preparing discharge summary.

Preparing a discharge summary the night before anticipated discharge can have many advantages, including improving early discharge times the next morning. And it means the doctor can prepare the summary late in the day after routine rounding is finished and interruptions are less likely. Although I think quality of care is enhanced by generating the summary the night before (and amending it as needed), I worked with a hospital that was cited by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) for doing this and was told they can’t be done prior to the calendar day of discharge.

Creation of the discharge summary isn’t the only relevant step. It should be transcribed on a stat basis (e.g. within two to four hours) and pushed to the PCP and other treating physicians. It isn’t enough that the document is available to the PCP via an EHR; these doctors need some sort of notice, such as an email.

To take advantage of the new “transitional-care management” codes (99495 and 99496), PCPs must make telephone contact with patients within two days of discharge and must have a face-to-face visit within one or two weeks of discharge (depending on whether the patient is high- or moderate-risk). Making the summary available to the PCP quickly can be crucial in ensuring these phone calls and visits are meaningful. (For an excellent review of the TCM codes, see Dr. Lauren Doctoroff’s article “New Codes Bridge Hospitals’ Post-Discharge Billing Gap” in the February 2013 issue of The Hospitalist.)

So I think both patients and other treating physicians should get the discharge summary on the day of discharge or no more than a day or two after. I bet this improves quality of care and readmissions, but one study found no association, and another found a trend toward reduced readmissions that did not reach statistical significance.1,2


Just what information should go in a discharge summary? There are lots of opinions here, but it is worth starting with the components required by The Joint Commission. (You were aware of these, right?) The commission requires:

  • Reason for hospitalization;
  • Significant findings;
  • Procedures and treatment provided;
  • Patient’s discharge condition;
  • Patient and family instructions; and
  • Attending physician’s signature

To this list, I would add enumeration of tests pending at discharge.

The May/June 2005 issue of The Hospitalist has a terrific article by three thoughtful hospitalists titled “Advancing Toward the Ideal Hospital Discharge for the Elderly Patient.” It summarizes a 2005 workshop at the SHM annual meeting that produced a checklist of elements to consider including in every summary.

Brevity is a worthwhile goal but not at the expense of conveying the thought processes behind decisions. Things like how a decision was made to pursue watchful waiting versus aggressive workup now should be spelled out. Was it simply patient preference? It is common to start a trial of a medical therapy during a hospital stay, and it should be made clear that its effect should be assessed and a deliberate decision regarding continuing or stopping the therapy will be needed after discharge.

Lots of things need context and explanation for subsequent caregivers.


The hospital in which I practice recently switched to a new EHR, and our hospitalist group has talked some about all of us using the same basic template for our notes. This should be valuable to all other caregivers who read a reasonable number of our notes and might improve our communication with one another around handoffs, etc. Although we haven’t reached a final decision about this, I’m an advocate for a shared template rather than each doctor using his or her own. This would be a worthwhile thing for all groups to consider.

Dr. Nelson

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. Write to him at [email protected].


  1. Hanson LO. Hospital discharge documentation and risk of rehospitalization. BMJ Qual Saf. 2011;20(9):773-778.
  2. Van Walraven C, Seth R, Austin PC, Laupacis A. Effect of discharge summary availability during post-discharge visits on hospital readmission. J Gen Intern Med. 2002;17(3):186-192.

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