Patient Care

Coordinated Approach May Help in Caring for Hospitals’ Neediest Patients


Dr. Hilger led a multidisciplinary team to develop care plans (they call them “restriction care plans”) and found that they dramatically reduced the rate of hospital admissions and ED visits for these patients. Hearing about this experience served as a kick in the pants for me, so I did much the same things at “my” hospital. We have developed plans for more than 20 patients.

To my way of thinking, a person’s diagnosis or pathophysiology is not as strong a predictor of needing inpatient hospital care as it might have been 10 or 20 years ago. Rather than the clinical diagnosis (e.g. pneumonia), it seems to me that frailty or social complexity often are the principal determinants of which patients are admitted to a hospital for medical conditions.

Some of these patients are admitted frequently but appear to realize little or no benefit from hospitalization. These patients typically have little or no social support, and they often have either significant mental health disorders or substance abuse, or both. Much has been written about these patients, and I recommend an article by Dr. Atul Gawande in the Jan. 24, 2011, issue of The New Yorker titled “The Hot Spotters: Can We Lower Medical Costs by Giving the Neediest Patients Better Care?”

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s “Statistical Brief 354” on how health-care expenditures are allocated across the population reported that 1% of the population accounted for more than 22% of health-care spending in 2008. One in 5 of those were in that category again in 2009. Some of these patients would benefit from care plans.

The Role of Care Plans

It seems that there may be few effective inpatient interventions that will benefit these patients. After all, they have chronic issues that require ongoing relationships with outpatient providers, something that many of these patients lack. But for some (most?) of these patients, it seems clear that frequent hospitalizations don’t help and sometimes just perpetuate or worsen the patient’s dependence on the hospital at a high financial cost to society—and significant frustration and burnout on the part of hospital caregivers, including hospitalists.

For most hospitals, this problem is significant enough to require some sort of coordinated approach to the care of the dozens of types of patients in this category. Implementing whatever plan of care seems appropriate to the caregivers during each admission is frustrating, ensures lots of variation in care, and makes it easier for manipulative patients to abuse the hospital resources and personnel.

A better approach is to follow the same plan of care from one hospital visit to the next. You already knew that. But developing a care plan to follow during each ED visit and admission is time-consuming and often fraught with uncertainty about where boundaries should be set. So if you’re like me, you might just try to guide the patient to discharge this time and hope that whoever sees the patient on the next admission will take the initiative to develop the care plan. The result is that few such plans are developed.

Your Hospital Needs a Care Plan

Relying on individual doctors or nurses to take the initiative to develop care plans will almost always mean few plans are developed, they will vary in their effectiveness, and other providers may not be aware a plan exists. This was the case at the hospital where I practice until I heard Dr. Rick Hilger, MD, SFHM, a hospitalist at Regions Hospital in Minneapolis, present on this topic at HM12 in San Diego.

Dr. Hilger led a multidisciplinary team to develop care plans (they call them “restriction care plans”) and found that they dramatically reduced the rate of hospital admissions and ED visits for these patients. Hearing about this experience served as a kick in the pants for me, so I did much the same thing at “my” hospital. We have now developed plans for more than 20 patients and found that they visit our ED and are admitted less often. And, anecdotally at least, hospitalists and other hospital staff find that the care plans reduce, at least a little, the stress of caring for these patients.

Unanswered Questions

Although it seems clear that care plans reduce visits to the hospital that develops them, I suspect that some of these patients aren’t consuming any fewer health-care resources. They may just seek care from a different hospital.

My home state of Washington is working to develop individual patient care plans available to all hospitals in the state. A system called the Emergency Department Information Exchange (EDIE) has been adopted by nearly all the hospitals in the state. It allows them to share information on ED visits and such things as care plans with one another. For example, through EDIE, each hospital could see the opiate dosing schedule and admission criteria agreed to by patient and primary-care physician.

So it seems that care plans and the technology to share them can make it more difficult for patients to harm themselves by visiting many hospitals to get excessive opiate prescriptions, for example. This should benefit the patient and lower ED and hospital expenditures for these patients. But we don’t know what portion of costs simply is shifted to other settings, so there is no easy way to know the net effect on health-care costs.

An important unanswered question is whether these care plans improve patient well-being. It seems clear they do in some cases, but it is hard to know whether some patients may be worse off because of the plan.


I think nearly every hospital would benefit from a care plan committee composed of at least one hospitalist, ED physician, a nursing representative, and potentially other disciplines (see “Care Plan Attributes,” above). Our committee includes our inpatient psychiatrist, a really valuable contributor.

Care Plan Attributes*

Care plans should be easy to:

  • Create (i.e. by starting with a standard template);
  • Find; and
  • Use.

Care plans should be designed to:

  • Promote safe patient care;
  • Foster partnership and trust with patients;
  • Support positive patient outcomes; and
  • Reduce total cost of care.

Sample categories within care plans:

  • Management in ED;
  • Reasons (criteria) for admission; and
  • Management once admitted.

*Adapted from Dr. Rick Hilger’s presentation at HM12 in San Diego

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

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