Clinical Review

The Role of Process Improvements in Reducing Heart Failure Readmissions



From the Department of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, IL.


Objective: To review selected process-of-care interventions that can be applied both during the hospitalization and during the transitional care period to help address the persistent challenge of heart failure readmissions.

Methods: Review of the literature.

Results: Process-of-care interventions that can be implemented to reduce readmissions of heart failure patients include: accurately identifying heart failure patients; providing disease education; titrating guideline-directed medical therapy; ensuring discharge readiness; arranging close discharge follow-up; identifying and addressing social barriers; following up by telephone; using home health; and addressing comorbidities. Importantly, the heart failure hospitalization is an opportunity to set up outpatient success, and setting up feedback loops can aid in post-discharge monitoring.

Conclusion: We encourage teams to consider local capabilities when selecting processes to improve; begin by improving something small to build capacity and team morale, and continually iterate and reexamine processes, as health care systems are continually evolving.

Keywords: heart failure; process improvement; quality improvement; readmission; rehospitalization; transitional care.

The growing population of patients affected by heart failure continues to challenge health systems. The increasing prevalence is paralleled by the rising costs of managing heart failure, which are projected to grow from $30.7 billion in 2012 to $69.8 billion in 2030.1 A significant portion of these costs relate to readmission after an index heart failure hospitalization. The statistics are staggering: for patients hospitalized with heart failure, approximately 15% to 20% are readmitted within 30 days.2,3 Though recent temporal trends suggest a modest reduction in readmission rates, there is a concerning correlation with increasing mortality,3 and a recognition that readmission rate decreases may relate to subtle changes in coding-based risk adjustment.4 Despite these concerns, efforts to reduce readmissions after heart failure hospitalization command significant attention.

Process improvement methodologies may be helpful in reducing hospital readmissions. Various approaches have been employed, and results have been mixed. An analysis of 70 participating hospitals in the American Heart Association’s Get With the Guidelines initiative found that, while overall readmission rates declined by 1.0% over 3 years, only 1 hospital achieved a 20% reduction in readmission rates.5

It is notably difficult to reduce readmissions after heart failure hospitalization. One challenge is that patients with heart failure often have multiple comorbidities, and approximately 50% to 60% of 30-day readmissions after heart failure hospitalization arise from noncardiac causes.1 Another challenge is that a significant fraction of readmissions in general—perhaps 75%—may not be avoidable.6

Recent excellent systematic reviews and meta-analyses provide comprehensive overviews of process improvement strategies that can be used to reduce readmissions after heart failure hospitalizations.7-9 Yet despite this extensive knowledge, few reports discuss the process of actually implementing these changes: the process of process improvement. Here, we seek to not only highlight some of the most promising potential interventions to reduce heart failure readmissions, but also to discuss a process improvement framework to help engender success, using our experience as a case study. We schematize process improvement efforts as having several distinct phases (Figure 1): processes delivered during the hospitalization and prior to discharge; feedback loops set up to maintain clinical stability at home; and the postdischarge clinic visit as an opportunity to further stabilize the patient and advance the plan of care. The discussion of these interventions follows this organization.

Schematic of process improvements to reduce readmissions of patients with heart failure


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