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Why Are Patients Readmitted To The Hospital Within 30 Days Of Discharge?

Bouncing back to the hospital refers to patients who were discharged from the hospital but return during some defined period of time.  This will become important as insurance companies, including CMS, stop paying for patients who are readmitted within some defined period for the same condition.  In medical circles, we usually refer to this as the 30 day readmission rate.

When hospitalist groups were first coming on the scene and were showing reduced length of stay, many folks falsely believed that hospitalists must have a higher percentage of patients bouncing back into the hospital.  I have yet to see any research that indicates such trend every existed.

For me, the first thing I ask myself when I learn a patient of mine is bouncing back or has bounced back during the overnight shift is why.  Did I miss something?  Are they back for the same reason?  Is the reason bogus?   Was it a GOMER patient?   How long has it been since I discharged them?

I once had a patient bounce back four times in less than two weeks because they were weak and drunk and lonely and refused all efforts for outpatient placement and assistance.  I ultimately learned they enjoyed their time in the hospital because “someone else was cooking for me here”.

Why are most patients bouncing back into the hospital? The most common conditions I see for patients bouncing back into the hospital are

  • Congestive heart failure exacerbation
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis
  • COPD exacerbation
  • Nonspecific abdominal pain
  • Drug seeking behavior
  • Substance abuse with sequella
  • Decompensated alcoholic liver disease
  • Drug overdose and suicidal attempts.

When I learn a patient of mine is bouncing back in the emergency department or has bounced back on the night shift, I want to know how long it has been and what was their condition when I  discharged them.  What were their vitals signs when I let them go?  How severe was their underlying illness?  Were there recommendations for hospice or placement into a nursing home that were declined?

There are many questions that I wonder about when I learn a patient is bouncing back.  In my experience, rarely if ever  has a patient ever returned because  a diagnosis was missed or mismanaged or their condition was not stable for discharge.  So why are my patients bouncing back?  The most common reason my patients are bouncing back is because they have a condition unrelated to the original admission.  In addition my patients are bouncing back from

  • Unforeseen medication complications such as acute renal failure or gastrointestinal bleeding
  • Outpatient anticoagulation complications
  • Dietary indiscretions such as high salt intake during the holidays in a heart failure patient
  • COPD patients who continue to smoke and don’t use their oxygen as directed
  • Lack of insulin compliance in type I diabetics
  • End stage disease with unmanaged expectations and poor compliance of medical management requirements

Rarely do I see patients bouncing back because of poor hospital care.   What I see are patients with poor lifestyle choices who suffer the consequences of their choices.  What I see are patients with complicated disease states, polypharmacy and poor reserve, that even under the best monitored circumstances, have poor prognostic indicators. What I see are patients who are unable to care for themselves or choose not to take care of themselves.  What I see are patients who know that no matter how they choose to live their lives, the hospital will be there to save them again…and again…and again…

When you know your choices have no consequences.  When you know your choices will be paid for by others around you.  When you falsely believe that doctors and medicines and fancy technology will always be there to save you one more time, there is no reason to suffer through the necessary self motivation to remain hospital free.

When you know you next bounce back has no consequences, bouncing back becomes just another normal day in the life cycle of your disease process.  I have patients every day with 5, 10, 15 admissions a year for decompensated disease.  For them, it’s just a normal part of their existence.

What was one of the fastest bounce backs I’ve every seen?  A 500 pound man originally admitted with multiple complaints was being discharged by ambulance to a small town nursing home when he was suddenly diverted to the nearest emergency department with complaints of chest pain and nausea.

What and the heck do you think is gonna happen with that?  The easiest answer is the most expensive answer which is also the pathway of least resistance.  You call the hospitalist to readmit them.   After bouncing back to the hospital for readmission, five thousand dollars, one green goddess and a day later and the patient was back on road.

What’s the solution to preventing patients from bouncing back into the hospital?  I don’t know.  I do know it’s not bad hospital care.  Perhaps it’s complex discharge planning.  Maybe it’s polypharmacy.  Maybe it’s patient ignorance out of choice or genetics.  Maybe it’s bad lifestyle compliance.  Maybe some are just hospital junkies.  What ever the answer, I know it’s not bad hospital care causing patients to bounce back.

*This blog post was originally published at The Happy Hospitalist Blog*


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3 Responses to “Why Are Patients Readmitted To The Hospital Within 30 Days Of Discharge?”

  1. JoanSnow says:

    At the risk of sounding facetious, last time I checked ‘loneliness’ was not a lifestyle choice. You missed something really important from the list of options – what about people’s life circumstances and the things that affect 1. How well they can care for themselves and 2. Their lifestyle choices (I’m talking about things like the house they live in, family and friends that can support them etc).

  2. Sandy says:

    Why is it that the patient is always to blame when there doesn’t seem to be a definative answer to a medical dilemna? There are hospitalists out there (not to say your 1 of them.) who wrongly blame the patient for their diagnosis & discharge too early when the patient isn’t ready for discharge. So, no wonder the person comes back sseking care for sympotoms that were mismanaged in the 1st place. As a healthcare professional, I’ve seen this happen on numerous occasions. Thanks for taking the time to read!

  3. jhayneslaw says:

    Im an attorney working on a med-mal case. I find this article insensitive and completely in denial of hospital mismanagement and misdiagnosis of patients. I think my client who’s baby died inutero at 33 weeks 2 days after the hospital discharged her with a misdiagnosis would seriously disagree with this article if she could get past her depression from the loss. Sounds like this author is burned out from treating patients and needs a long vacation.

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