Patient Care

SHM Tallies Ratio of Hospital Respondents' Observation Admissions to Inpatient Admission Encounters


Johnbuck Creamer, MD

SHM added a new item to its 2012 State of Hospital Medicine report: the ratio of respondents’ observation admissions to inpatient admission encounters. This metric was added because observation encounters have been increasing, with financial effects on hospitals and patients. SHM survey respondents reported a 20% observation rate for both adult and pediatric practice groups (see Figure 1).

Johnbuck Creamer, MD

Figure 1. Ratio of Inpatient to Observation Admissions

Under observation status, services that used to be billed as inpatient status (e.g. chest pain evaluation, treatment of asthma exacerbation) must be billed by the hospital at much lower outpatient rates. Some hospitals have responded to this financial pressure by creating observation units or making other operational adjustments. One recent analysis suggested that nationwide adoption of such efforts could save billions of dollars.1

Becoming lean enough to do short work in short time, though, does not address all of the observation-related issues facing hospitals. When the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Recovery Audit Contractors (RACs) determine retrospectively that an inpatient admission should have been an observation encounter, the hospital’s payment is not downgraded but forfeited.2 This development has prompted hospitals to preemptively opt for observation status for certain patients. Case managers and providers increasingly are spending time reviewing inpatient versus observation status throughout a patient’s stay. Many hospitals have turned to third-party contractors to help review observation status.

Observation status has financial implications for patients as well. In the past year, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN Money all have reported on patients hit with unexpected out-of-pocket expenses related to observation care.3,4,5 A common theme: Medicare patient hospitalized with an acute fracture, managed nonoperatively but requiring rehabilitation prior to returning home. These patients found out too late that observation, a status they were often unaware of, did not qualify for CMS’ three-day inpatient requirement to cover rehabilitation costs. Some patients were charged exorbitant prices for noncovered “outpatient” services, such as providing their routine medications.

Advocacy groups have joined the fray on patients’ behalf, and legal challenges have ensued. AARP and others are educating patients about observation status—and their right to challenge it. The Center for Medicare Advocacy ( has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of patients hit with uncovered rehabilitation costs, and the American Hospital Association has teamed with several hospitals to sue over funds forfeited in RAC audits ( Both houses of Congress have legislation (H.R. 1543 and S. 818) seeking to count observation days toward the Medicare three-day rule. For its part, CMS has promised to review observation status and, hopefully, clarify the rules.

Hospitalists, meanwhile, are gearing up for more observation care. The 2012 State of Hospital Medicine report shows that 37% of adult groups and 28% of pediatric groups reported having primary responsibility for observation or short-stay units. My own hospital runs both a clinical decision unit in the ED and a short-stay unit staffed by our hospitalist group. As SHM tracks observation status in future surveys, HM groups will be able to follow this phenomenon among their colleagues and benchmark their own rates of observation encounters.

Dr. Creamer is medical director of the short-stay unit at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland and a member of SHM’s Practice Analysis Committee.


  1. Feng Z, Wright DB, Mor V. Sharp rise in Medicare enrollees being held in hospitals for observation raises concerns about causes and consequences. Health Aff (Millwood). 2012;31(6):1251-1259.
  2. Baugh CW, Venkatesh AK, Hilton JA, Samuel PA, Schuur JD, Bohan JS. Making greater use of dedicated hospital observation units for many short-stay patients could save $3.1 billion a year. Health Aff (Millwood). 2012;31(10):2314-2323.
  3. Gengler A. The painful new trend in Medicare. CNN Money website. Available at: Accessed March 6, 2013.
  4. Jaffe S. Patients held for observation can face steep drug bills. USA Today website. Available at: Accessed March 6, 2013.
  5. Landro L. Filling a gap between ERs and inpatient rooms. The Wall Street Journal website. Available at: Accessed March 6, 2013.

Next Article:

   Comments ()