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Patient engagement: A solution for reducing preventable readmissions

Allison Hart, Vice President Marketing TeleVox Solutions
Written by: Allison Hart

Readmissions are costly for hospitals and bad for patients. However, if medical teams prioritize communication, contact patients to follow up with them after discharge, and work to engage and support patients when the risk of readmission is high, readmissions can often be prevented. Hospitals across the U.S. are beginning to see the value in engaging patients after they have left the hospital. Ninety-five percent of hospitals and health systems are taking steps to engage patients as part of their efforts to avoid preventable hospital readmissions, according to a report by West. Still, most healthcare teams could do a better job of assessing patients’ needs (after they have been discharged) and identifying issues so they can intervene when necessary to prevent readmissions.

Preventable hospital readmissions are not only bad for patients, but they also carry substantial financial penalties. Medicare is withholding more than half a billion dollars in payments between October 2016 and September 2017 from hospitals that incurred penalties based on readmission rates. These penalties affect about half of all hospitals in the United States.

Thanks to technology, hospitals have tools available to efficiently contact and engage recently discharged patients. Hospitals can leverage their appointment reminder systems to deliver technology-enabled communications, like survey check-ins and follow-up appointment reminders. By tapping into this existing technology, hospital providers can actively reach out to discharged patients and assess their health so that issues can be addressed swiftly before they escalate to a point where readmittance is necessary.

The valuable insights that can be gleaned from a simple interaction after a hospital visit cannot be underestimated. Healthcare providers can learn if medication is being taken correctly, if patients are experiencing pain or other red-flag symptoms, if additional necessary appointments have been scheduled, and whether discharge instructions are being followed.

Hospitals and health systems are aware of the fact that poor communication is a common problem. West’s study revealed that half (50%) of acute care professionals feel that a lack of follow-up on a hospital’s end is a leading factor that contributes to readmissions. Another 32 percent say that insufficient communication after discharge is at least partly to blame for readmissions. Yet, only 39 percent of hospitals say they follow up with every discharged patient. Three quarters (77%) of hospitals follow up with at least half of the patients discharged from their facility. While a good start, this is not enough. If providers truly believe that insufficient communication is somewhat to blame for readmissions, they need to continue making efforts to reach out to patients – and not just some of the time, but rather all of the time.

Patients share in the mindset that hospitals should do more to support patients after hospitalizations. Patient feedback collected through Medicare’s HCAHPS (Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) confirms that patients who have been hospitalized feel there needs to be more hospital-led communication post-discharge. Half of those patients expressed confusion about some part of their care instructions after leaving the hospital and said they would have benefited from engagement with the healthcare provider.

Imagine that a patient leaves after major surgery and does not have anyone instructing them or communicating with them to ensure a follow-up appointment is made? Or consider how overwhelming it is for a patient to manage their medications when they are recovering from an illness and have been prescribed multiple medications that need to be taken at different intervals. Many patients’ questions and concerns could be addressed with hospital-initiated communications. An email to verify medication instructions or an automated phone call with an option to schedule a follow-up appointment are small efforts that can make a big impact. This type of communication is a significantly less expensive activity for hospitals than the cost related to excessive readmissions.

Currently, the number one reason hospitals contact patients after they have been discharged from the hospital is to remind them about follow-up appointments – 86 percent of hospital providers claim to have done this. The second most common reason given for contacting patients after discharge is health monitoring. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of surveyed hospitals have checked in with patients to collect information about the patient’s condition and give specific care instructions.

A bonus of using engagement communications to support patients and keep them out of the hospital is that these efforts may improve patient satisfaction scores. Nine out of ten acute care professionals surveyed believe that sending patients automated reminders and encouragement to follow care plans after they have been discharged from the hospital improves patient satisfaction. The majority (83%) of hospital and health system providers believe patient satisfaction will play a substantially more important role in their hospital’s success over the next several years. So, working to deliver positive patient experiences is a sound financial strategy. When hospitals send automated post-discharge communications to monitor health, they can also ask probing questions that will give them insights into how they are performing in the patient satisfaction category.

All of these points underscore the fact that a stronger focus on patient engagement, especially after leaving the hospital, will create a better experience for patients and can reduce readmissions that lead to payment penalties for healthcare facilities. The takeaway is that technology-enabled communications should become a consistent part of every healthcare organization’s routine as they strive to provide better patient care and reduce preventable readmissions.