Make no mistake, not all readmissions are preventable. But many are, if patients are given the right information and outpatient support.
The new Dartmouth Atlas evaluated Medicare records for 2008 to 2010, the latest publicly available data, to check progress just before Medicare cracked down. In October, the government began fining more than 2,000 hospitals where too many patients with heart failure, pneumonia or a heart attack had to be readmitted in recent years.
"Change is hard and comes slowly," said Dartmouth's Dr. David Goodman, who led the work.
Of seniors hospitalized for nonsurgical reasons, 15.9 percent were readmitted within a month in 2010, barely budging from 16.2 percent in 2008. Surgery readmissions aren't quite as frequent — 12.4 percent in 2010, compared with 12.7 percent in 2008. That's probably because the surgeon tends to provide some follow-up care.
Medicare's Blum told the AP that the government is closely tracking more recent, unpublished claims data that show readmissions are starting to drop. He wouldn't say by how much or whether that means fewer hospitals will face penalties next year when the maximum fines are scheduled to rise.
But by combining the penalties with other programs aimed at improving these transitions in care, "we have now changed the conversation," Blum said. "Two years ago, the response was, 'This is impossible.' Now it's, 'OK, let's figure out what works.'"
Hence interest in the geographic variation.
Some 18 percent of nonsurgical patients, the highest rate, are readmitted within a month in the New York City borough of the Bronx. Rates are nearly that high in Detroit, Lexington, Ky., and Worcester, Mass.
Yet the readmission rate in Ogden, Utah, is just 11.4 percent. Half a dozen other areas — including Salt Lake City, Muskegon, Mich., and Bloomington, Ill. — keep those rates below 13 percent.
For surgical patients, Bend, Ore., gets readmissions down to 7.6 percent.
Some studies suggest part of the variation is because certain hospitals care for sicker or poorer patients, especially in big cities. Yet Minneapolis, for example, has readmission rates just below the national average. Goodman said whether local doctors' stress outpatient care over hospitalization, and how many hospital beds an area has play big roles, too.
Readmissions don't always happen because the original ailment gets worse. It could be a new problem — the pneumonia patient who's still weak and falls, breaking a hip.
Yale University researchers recently reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that people face a period of overall vulnerability to illness right after a hospitalization, because of weakness, sleep deprivation, loss of appetite and side effects of new medications.
But ask returning patients what went wrong, and Coleman, the readmissions expert, said nonmedical challenges top the list.
New York's Montefiore Medical Center now sends uninsured patients home with two weeks' worth of medication so they don't have to hunt an affordable place to fill a prescription right away, said Dr. Ricardo Bello, a cardiac surgeon.
In the nation's capital, Dr. Kim Bullock recalled her frustration with a diabetic hospitalized nine times in one year in part because of transportation. He felt too lousy to ride two buses and the subway to the nearest Medicaid clinic for regular care.
"Start from their reality," said Bullock, an emergency room doctor and family physician. Without the right community connections, "they will just stumble along."
The Dartmouth study also found that fewer than half of patients saw a primary care doctor within two weeks of leaving the hospital.
Barbara McCoy tried. A New York hospital lowered the 44-year-old diabetic's dangerously high blood sugar and told her to call her own doctor immediately about how to prevent a recurrence. But she couldn't get an appointment until the following month. A week later, McCoy's blood sugar soared again, and she raced back to the emergency room.