Tips for Hospital Discharges

photo of doctors doing rounds in hospital room - tips for hospital dischargeYou might feel both happy and stressed when doctors decide you (or a loved one) can to go home from the hospital. You may feel joy that you will soon be home in your own bed. But you might worry that you feel too sick to go home. Or you might worry that you cannot handle the daily required medical tasks. What seems like a positive step is often filled with fear and concern. The cause for concern is not unfounded. The transition from hospital to home can be hazardous for patients and caregivers. Follow our tips below for hospital discharges to reduce your risk of complications.

Note – many patients go to long-term care facilities after a hospital stay. Although cared for by professionals at these facilities, this transition also carries risk of patient harm. However, this post focuses specifically on transitions to a home environment. For information on nursing homes and long-term care facilities, read my blog posts Nursing Home Safety Issues and How to Choose a Nursing Home.

Why are hospital discharges potentially dangerous?

Danger can occur when patients and/or family members do not understand how to care for themselves or their loved ones or are incapable of providing needed care. For instance, people can make medication errors, struggle with wound care, and miss important follow-up tests and appointments.

Shorter hospital stays can make care at home difficult.

Nowadays, hospitals discharge patients after shorter stays, which in general is a good thing since hospitals are full of dangerous germs that can make patients sicker. (To learn more, read How Can Patients Protect Themselves from Hospital Infections?)

But there’s a downside to shorter stays. Sending home sick patients with complicated medical needs that were historically handled by medical staff increases the risk of dangerous complications and infections – which can lead to serious health consequences and hospital readmissions.

What do patients and families want?

Researchers recently interviewed patients and family caregivers about their concerns around hospital discharges. The patients and family caregivers reported:

  • A desire to feel prepared and capable of caring for themselves or a loved one at home.
  • Wanting to know the healthcare system will meet their needs until they stabilize or recover
  • A desire to feel cared for and cared about by medical providers.

Patients need understandable, effective discharge instructions.

Clearly, understanding discharge instructions helps you, or your loved one, recover and remain healthy. Therefore, hospital staff should make sure all parties understand exactly what care is required. Additionally, staff should be certain patients and/or family caregivers are willing and capable of performing the required tasks. Finally, staff should ask patients about their living arrangements to make sure patients will be safe and will receive the proper care. But hospitals often don’t do a good job preparing patients and families for discharge. In fact, federal data shows that less than 50% of patients feel confident in their understanding of how to care for themselves when they leave the hospital.

Furthermore, research shows that approximately 1 out of 6 Medicare patients are readmitted within 30 days of discharge. Researchers surmise that part of the reason for this high readmission rate is that hospital staff often rush patients and families through the discharge process.

For more information, read my blog posts:

Tips for hospital discharges – reduce your risk of complications and readmissions.

Fortunately, you can take steps to reduce the risk of post-discharge issues – before, during and after a hospital stay.

Before a hospital admission for yourself or a loved one, do some research:

  • image of yellow check in blue box- tips for hospital dischargeHospitals need adequate nursing staff to cover all patients, during their stay and while preparing for discharge. One study found that hospitals with higher nursing staff levels significantly reduced their risk of Medicare and Medicaid penalties associated with excessive readmissions.

Throughout the hospital stay, make sure you understand what medical staff tell you:

  • photo doctors and family with patient in hospital bedIf you don’t understand, ask for a repeat or rephrasing of the information.
  • Patients and families should use a notebook to take notes and a file to keep documents organized. Keep records regarding visits from medical professionals, tests and corresponding results, medications prescribed and other pertinent information. Share this information with every medical professional caring for the patient after discharge.
  • Consider asking your doctors, nurses and/or discharge planner if you can record the discharge conversations so you can listen at home as often as needed.

Don’t think it’s the right time for discharge? 

  • Family members should speak up if they don’t feel the patient is ready to leave the hospital.
    • Provide details about your concerns.
    • If you don’t think the patient will be safe at home, say so.

Prepare for at home care:

  • photo woman taking care of sick man - tips for hospital dischargeReview all written instructions and make sure you understand everything. Ask as many questions as you need until you feel certain you understand everything. And pay attention to details – for instance, if the paperwork says to call with excessive bleeding, ask how you can judge how much blood is too much.
  • Ask what symptoms would require an office visit, and what would require a trip to the Emergency Department.
  • Find out who is overseeing the patient’s care and who to call if an issue arises. If possible, get cell phone numbers – but use these numbers sparingly!
  • Be sure you have a complete list of medications and understand when, how and why to take each one. Work with the nurse and discharge team to work out a system for organizing and remembering to take all medications. Medication errors upon discharge are very common – read Medication Errors Are Common at Hospital Discharge to learn more.

Equipment and medical tasks considerations: 

  • Delivery of all medical equipment, including a hospital bed if needed, should take place before the patient leaves the hospital.
  • Make sure the patient and/or family understands how to operate needed medical equipment.  Find out who to call if you have questions or concerns regarding medical equipment if issues arise.
  • The patient and/or a family member must understand and practice medical tasks (injections, wound care, etc.) required.

Financial concerns:

  • If the costs of medications and/or equipment will stop you from following doctors’ orders, speak up. Don’t let embarrassment keep you from addressing a financial hurdle.

Considerations for follow-up care:

  • Ask about follow up on test results. Find out when you, and your primary care doctor, will be notified with results. Record the date to call if you have not heard back – and get the exact phone number to call. Research shows that follow up on test results for hospitalized patients only occurs between 20% – 61% of the time.
  • photo of woman at table on phoneAsk about the hospital’s protocol for post-discharge check in calls. A hospital staff member should call patients and families within 2-3 days of discharge. Staff should use these calls to follow up on health issues, ask about follow up care, and to answer questions.
  • Insist the hospital-based doctors reach out to the patient’s Primary Care Physician (PCP) to notify them about the patient’s hospitalization. PCPs need to know what treatments the patient received, and what follow up care is needed. One study found that 30% of PCPs were unaware that a patient of theirs had been hospitalized. Patients whose PCP did not know about their hospitalization were twice as likely to report a problem (31% PCP aware vs. 67% PCP not aware).

When you get home:

  • Make any appointments for follow up care as recommended.
  • Follow up with your primary care doctor to make sure they know about the hospitalization.
  • photo pill organizerFill all prescriptions and set up systems to organize and remember to take each medication. Realize that over 50% of Americans do not take prescription medications as prescribed, which can lead to serious health consequences. To learn more, read Reduce Your Risk of Medication Errors.
  • Call the doctor’s office to get any test results that you have not heard about by the expected date.
  • Do not hesitate to call the doctor if a problem arises – it is best to catch an issue before it gets serious.

Don’t forget the emotional stress.

Importantly, realize that the transition home can be scary for patients and families. In addition to all of the medical issues discussed above, a hospital stay for a serious medical condition can leave patients and families worried about what the future will bring. For one patient’s perspective, Read article How to Deal With the Anxiety of Going From Hospital to Home.


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