With access to some of the most highly educated and trained medical professionals in the world, providing Americans with the best patient care possible should be simple. Unfortunately, that’s not often the case. Poor communication between specialists, duplicate tests and unnecessary procedures are frequently the norm rather than the exception, leading to costly, dangerous and sometimes deadly consequences. With so many specialists and resources readily on hand, how is this happening?
The problem is a lack of care coordination. Simply put, care coordination is the idea that all specialists treating a patient should communicate and share information to ensure that everyone acts as a team to meet patient needs. This includes reporting all results back to a primary care practice or to someone coordinating patient care, and ensuring that labs, specialists, hospitals, and long-term care facilities work together to communicate information quickly and appropriately. It’s about primary care physicians, nurses, technicians, specialists, and caregivers collaborating on patient care rather than working as separate entities.
The average Medicare beneficiary interacts with seven physicians in four different practices during a single year, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. For those with chronic conditions, the numbers can be even higher. And, nearly one-fifth of Medicare patients who are hospitalized are readmitted within 30 days of discharge, and 75 percent of these readmissions could have been prevented by improved care coordination.
Too often, patients discharged from hospitals don’t get the support and encouragement they need to take their medicine, follow their diets, and adhere to the regimens doctors have prescribed during their stay. Many of these problems can be solved by improving care coordination, and that starts with communication between care sites.
Here are seven suggestions for improving communication between care sites—as well as across the care continuum:
- Start the dialog: As a rule of thumb, improving communication between care sites begins with healthcare providers asking themselves what they know that others need to know, and sharing that information with the patient’s care team. What do patients need to know when they’re referred to a specialist? What do the specialists that patients are being referred to need to be aware of, e.g. what tests have already been completed? Has the primary care physician been informed?
- Create a team and make it accountable: Organizations should start by assigning a team of people to be accountable for managing patient care. Define the extent of their responsibilities for key activities such as following up on test results and communicating information to other physicians. Establish when specific responsibilities should be transferred to other care providers—whether that means specialty physicians, long-term care facilities, or home care providers.
- Designate care coordinators: Designate staff that will act specifically as care coordinators can help to reduce hospital readmissions. Before patients leave the hospital, care coordinators should meet with them to make sure they understand the treatment plans they need to follow at home as well as any changes to their medication regimens. The hospital care coordinators also must follow up on any pending labs and imaging studies and contact primary care physicians to communicate updated medications, treatment plans, and test results for their patients. The likelihood of readmission drops significantly when patients leave with a clear understanding of their treatment plans and when their primary care physicians know what is necessary during follow-up care.
This same communication protocol should also apply to patients who leave the hospital for long-term care facilities. In this instance, the hospital care coordinator should communicate discharge instructions to the long-term care staff. As soon as residents return to the long-term care facility, staff there should meet with residents to review their discharge instructions, answer their questions, and communicate with the hospital if any further clarification is needed. Long-term care staff should also follow up regularly with these residents to ensure they continue to comply with instructions the doctor has recommended and intervene if any problems arise.
- Standardize communication processes: Create a protocol for filling out patient charts in a standard way so they are easy to interpret and key elements aren’t overlooked. You also should standardize communication by using structured forms to ensure primary care providers, specialists, and long-term care providers all have the same and necessary information.
- Develop a referral tracking system: Creating a system to internally track and manage referrals and transitions— including consultations with specialists, hospitalizations and ER visits, and referrals to community agencies—can go a long way towards improving communication between care sites. It will help to ensure patients are well prepared for their referral visit and know what to expect afterwards. And, it simplifies follow-up with referral providers about findings, next steps and treatment plans.
- Follow up on referrals: When a primary care physician refers a patient to a specialist, for example, office staff should follow up to make sure the appointment was made and completed. In addition, office staff needs to ensure the specialist shares his findings with the primary care physician so he can be well versed on the patient's progress and any additional steps to be taken.
- Notify providers in the patient's medical neighborhood: Similarly, when patients visit the emergency room or are admitted to the hospital, communication should be a priority. In this instance, hospital staff should notify the primary care practice so the primary care doctor can follow the patient’s progress through discharge and institute a care plan to prevent future admissions. In addition, the practice can reach out to patients when they leave the hospital to make sure they understand discharge instructions and schedule follow-up appointments. When the patient comes in for follow-up care, the primary care physician should have a complete history of specialists seen during the hospital admission, their recommendations, and tests performed, along with the results.
The healthcare industry can no longer simply “discharge” patients. Providers must now work collaboratively with all others across the continuum of care to transition and coordinate the ongoing care of every patient. That’s what care coordination is all about.
About the Author: Richard A. Royer has served as the chief executive officer of Primaris since 2001. He has extensive administrative healthcare experience and is actively involved in several statewide healthcare initiatives. In 2006 he was appointed by the Missouri governor to the Missouri Healthcare Information Technology Task Force and chaired the resources workgroup. He also serves on the board of directors as treasurer for the Excellence in Missouri Foundation. In his over 35 years of medical business experience he has held positions as chief executive officer at Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, General Hospital; executive director of Columbia Regional Hospital in Missouri; and founder and president of Avalon Enterprises, a medical financial consulting firm.
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