Readmissions after hospital discharge for acute myocardial infarction, heart failure, and pneumonia have now become major targets for proposed Medicare savings as part of the current budget tightening in Washington. Hospitals in the past have viewed readmissions either with disdain and disinterest or as a "cash cow."
Readmissions have been good business, as long as Medicare reimbursed hospitals for individual admissions no matter how long or short or how frequent. Readmissions are estimated to cost $17 billion annually. As Medicare costs continue to increase, the control of readmissions appears to be a good target for saving some money. As a result, Medicare levied a maximum reduction of 1% on payments last year on 307 of the nation’s hospitals that were deemed to have too many readmissions (New York Times, Nov. 26, 2012).
Readmissions for AMI and heart failure are among the most frequent hospital admissions and readmissions. Readmissions in cardiology have been an important outcome measure in clinical trials for the last half century. As mortality rates decreased over the years, rehospitalization became more important as clinicians realized its importance in the composite outcome measure of cost and benefit of new therapies. Two of the potential causes of readmission have been early discharge and the lack of postdischarge medical support. The urgency for early discharge for both heart failure and AMI has been driven largely by the misplaced emphasis on shorter hospital stays.
A recent international trial examined readmission rates as an outcome measure in patients who were treated with a percutaneous coronary intervention after an ST-elevation MI. According to that study, the readmission rate in the United States is almost twice that of European centers. Much of this increase was related to a shorter hospital stay in the United States that was half that of the European centers: 8 vs. 3 days (JAMA 2012;307:66-74).
In the last few years there has actually been a speed contest in some cardiology quarters to see how quickly patients can be discharged after a STEMI. As a result, a "drive through" mentality for percutaneous coronary intervention and AMI treatment has developed. Some of this has been generated by hospital administration, but with full participation by cardiologists. There appears to be little or no benefit to the short stay other than on the hospital bottom line. It now appears that, in the future, the financial benefit of this expedited care will be challenged.
Heart failure admissions suffer from similar expedited care. The duration of a hospital stay for heart failure decreased from 8.8 to 6.3 days between 1996 and 2006. Similar international disparity exists as observed with AMI. The rate of readmission in 30 days after discharge is estimated to be roughly 20%. The occurrence of readmission within 30 days is not just an abstract statistic and an inconvenience to patients but is associated with a mortality in the same period of 6.4%, which exceeded inpatient mortality (JAMA 2010;303;2141-7).
Many patients admitted with fluid overload leave the hospital on the same medication that they were taking prior to admission and at the same weight as at admission. Some of this is the result of undertreatment with diuretics, driven by misconceptions about serum creatinine levels, but in many situations patients may not even be weighed. Heart failure patients are often elderly who have significant concomitant disease and require careful in-hospital modification of heart failure therapy. Many of these elderly patients also require the institution of medical and social support prior to discharge.
Inner-city and referral hospitals indicate that they are being unfairly penalized by the nature of the demographic and severity of their patient mix. Some of this pushback is warranted. The "one size fits all" approach by Medicare may well require some modification in view of the variation in both the medical and social complexity. Some form of staging of severity and the need for outpatient nurse support needs to be considered.
Hospitals, nevertheless, are scrambling to respond to the Medicare threat and have begun to apply resources and innovation to solve this pressing issue. Cardiologists themselves also can have an important impact on the problem. We all need to slow down and spend some time dealing with the long-term solutions to short-term problems like acute heart failure and AMI.
Dr. Goldstein writes the column, "Heart of the Matter," which appears regularly in Cardiology News, a Frontline Medical Communications publication. He is professor of medicine at Wayne State University and division head emeritus of cardiovascular medicine at Henry Ford Hospital, both in Detroit. He is on data safety monitoring committees for the National Institutes of Health and several pharmaceutical companies.