This article is based on a presentation given at the 2017 Institute for Healthcare Improvement and BMJ International Forum on Quality and Safety in Healthcare in London.

THE headline above is the darker side of what most of us would think was a bright event: being let out of hospital.

But when you think about it, transitions in health care, not surprisingly, can pose challenging times for both the patient and the health system. The passing from one care setting to another, particularly for patients with complex and chronic care needs, opens the potential for mistakes, oversights and misunderstandings and, far too often, a marked absence of vital information that should flow from the hospital to the receiving carer.

Transition from one health care sector to another presents an increased risk of medication error, for instance, according to research cited by the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Healthcare. There was a two-fold increase in the relative risk of re-admission associated with the omission of medication from a hospital discharge summary. Another study found that one-third of patients had a medication error at admission, 85% of which originated in their medication histories.

Medication errors are but one common hazard of care transition. How well prepared are patients, carers and the health system itself to ensure that patients receive the thorough care that is possible, yet too often absent, at times of transition?

It’s a question central to the performance of health services. The quality of transition care provides a testing measure of our overall health system, where quality of patient-focused care is demonstrated when responsibility passes from one care setting to another.

For Australia, the split nature of our health system can be a complicating factor. Public hospitals are state government institutions, while much community care, particularly that provided by GPs, is financed and often regulated by the Commonwealth.

Whatever the explanation, Australia as many other countries, has some way to go to ensure that transition care meets the reasonable expectations of consumers for continuing quality of care that is well coordinated and organised around their needs.

Leaving hospital should not mean a plunge into uncertain, incomplete care. Too frequently in Australia, that is the outcome where often vulnerable patients are discharged, without complete medication and other records and a clear care plan, into an unorganised setting in which informed teamwork by different health professionals is absent.

As with medication misadventure, the downsides of this disruption to care and a failure of our system to coordinate better are profound and come with many costs.

Why is this so? Too often there is a lack of routine and standard practices for care transition, including inadequate support in the community by integrated teams of health practitioners who are well linked with community services to support what should be expected practice.

Transitional services vary from one state to another, and infrastructure to facilitate connected care, shared records and other solutions to smooth transition are insufficient.

But while the settings may change, we know that the patient’s needs will remain.

The one constant is the patient.

What is best for the patient requires a focus on their individual needs: consumer-centred care and good information to patient and carers provided by an integrated team, which may include GPs, nurse practitioners, medical specialists and a mix of allied health practitioners, such as physiotherapists, psychologists and diabetes educators.

We are about to trial in Australia what should be the next big evolution in primary care, Health Care Homes.

The need for strong integrated care for patients in transition is expanding, including the growth in chronic diseases such as diabetes requiring multidisciplinary attention, best provided in the community and enabled by medical advances that mean earlier discharge from hospital.

Competent transitional care is also important because of the substantial costs generated by ineffective transitions and adverse events such as medication mismanagement, and poor handover to GP or community care resulting in avoidable hospital re-admission.

Given the patient is the one constant amid varied settings and clinicians, we need to be working with patients and their carers to systematically capture their insights and measure their experiences of care to help guard against ineffective transition and identify where the breakdowns occur.

A key point is that consumers are not homogeneous. They have different levels of health literacy, their cases will differ in complexity and they will have different levels of family and social support. We increasingly need models of care that are tailored to individuals.

The shift towards patient-centred health care homes and new ways of paying for value- rather than volume-driven health care, which we hope will flow from the proposed Health Care Homes trial, provides the kind of “step down” services we need to aid effective transition from hospital to either home or aged care facility.

The key is a transitional care plan that allows for information transfer, medicines management planning, care coordination and access to the right array of “step down” community based services – both medical and non-medical.

High performing health systems have a strong primary care backbone.

We know in Australia that people find our system hard to navigate, and the common experience of care is one of fragmentation and disconnected care.

This is where the patient-centred health care home, if implemented well, offers the key ingredients, such as care coordination and an enhanced level of consumer involvement.

Accountability must be clear about who is responsible for follow-through on transitional care plans.

We know from experience here and overseas that care systems work best where the emphasis is on clinicians and patient and carers sharing decisions about care, and where there is support for patient leaders, so they can partner with clinicians and others to create services that optimise patient experience and insight.

Improvements will require health practitioners to work in different ways, including specialists working outside of hospital walls.

Electronic health records technology will ease the use of shared records and promote shared decision making.

And our health services need to take more account of the social determinants of health. Concepts such as social prescribing should be included in the way we implement patient-centred health care homes. Keeping people well and at home is a product of access to both non-medical and medical services.

So, the shift to patient-centred health care homes is as much about cultural change as it is about a new model of care. For real success, consumers must be the makers and shapers of progressive primary health care transformation in collaboration with clinicians.

To make this work, we will need to develop more effective records about patients’ experiences in care transitions, requiring organisations and clinicians to verify that they have sent, received, read and acted on a discharge summary.

There will need to be culture change, system change and different financial incentives to influence the behaviour of all involved in transitions of care.

And there will need to be the right policy enablers that ensure the way we organise health care takes a “whole of system” approach. Recent commentary has suggested that primary care agreements be put in place between the Commonwealth and the states, supplemented by trilateral, localised agreements signed by the Commonwealth, the state and the Primary Health Network. For shared accountability for better transitional care, this seems a step in the right direction, particularly if the right targets are put in place.

Consumers will need to change behaviour, working with clinicians to describe what works and what doesn’t work in transitional care and what combination of people, services and settings need to be implemented.

Our health culture is in transition, hopefully to a better place.

Leanne Wells is chief executive officer of Consumers Health Forum of Australia. She was a member of the Primary Health Care Advisory Group.

Dr Paresh Dawda is a GP with multiple clinical leadership, academic and advisory positions.

Dr Andrew Knight is the chair of the Nepean Blue Mountains PHN and is a conjoint senior lecturer at the Fairfield-Academic GP Unit, University of New South Wales.


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2 thoughts on “Hospital discharge: a dangerous time for patients

  1. Coralie Endean says:

    I would like to highlight several concerning features of this opinion piece. Firstly, while junior doctors are doing the bulk of discharge summaries, that does not mean that they necessarily do them poorly. They can be a very effective learning and a communication teaching tool for a young doctor. What they do need is critical review, constructive advice and critique from a senior doctor (at the very least a senior review) with each discharge summary. To suggest that senior doctors do the discharge summary is just “kicking the can down the road” and will result in a senior doctor being asked to do a discharge summary when they have never been exposed to one (or taught how to do a good one and why) in the past. That is going to be counterproductive and is certainly not going to fix the problem long term. Secondly I can see a preemptive play in this article for the promised MOCA 5- clinical support time that is so sorely needed for SMO’s in our hospital systems. At the moment all activities (M and M, Audit, research, intern and student education, Staff education, insurance claims etc) are considered non-clinical and not important. If I was to get my CST time right now I would not have the time to devote to discharge summaries. What I do have time for right now is appropriate intern supervision and a phone call for each patient that flags as needing GP follow up. Can I please urge all community GP’s to make an effort to answer those phone calls from the hospital or if it is to disruptive during a consult ring straight back? If we acted collegiately we could solve this problem right now.

  2. Kay Dunkley says:

    The authors seem to have missed the important role of pharmacists undertaking medication reconciliation both at admission to hospital and discharge. Likewise post discharge Home Medication Reviews undertaken by pharmacists are also key to preventing medication misadventure which may result in readmission.

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