Are We Killing People With 30-Day Readmission Targets?

Ever since the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced their intention to penalize hospitals for early readmissions, folks have been worrying about the obvious consequences: would a focus on avoidance place patients at risk? Would patients best served in the hospital be pushed into other settings for suboptimal care?

That is the argument made in this short piece in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. They look backwards at the last two decades of heart failure readmissions and short-term mortality, and take issue with the fundamental underlying premise of the quality measure, the inequities associated with the measure, and potential unintended harms. Their most illustrative example: when patients die outside the hospital within 30-days, paradoxically, they contribute to apparent improved performance in healthcare quality, as measured by 30-day readmission.

They back up their point by using the aggregate data analyzing readmissions between 2008 and 2014, published previously in JAMA, and focusing primarily on the heart failure component. In the original JAMA analysis, the evaluation paired individual hospital monthly readmission and risk-adjusted mortality, and were unable to identify an increased risk of death relating to reductions in 30-day readmissions. These authors say: too much tree, not enough forest. In the decade prior to announcements of 30-day readmission penalties, 30-day heart failure mortality had dropped 16.2%, but over the analysis period, 30-day heart failure mortality was back on the rise. In 2008 the 30-day mortality was 7.9% and by 2014 it was up to 9.2%, a 16.5% increase, and an even larger increase relative to the pre-study trend with decreasing mortality.

These are obviously two very different ways of looking at the same data, but the implication is fair: those charged with developing a quality measure should be able to conclusively demonstrate its effectiveness and safety. If any method of analysis raises concerns regarding the accepted balance of value and harm, the measure should be placed on a probationary status while rigorous re-evaluation proceeds.

“The Hospital Readmission Reduction Program Is Associated With Fewer Readmissions, More Deaths”
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0735109717393610

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