Only Anecdotal

No numbers, just stories

Not Ready for Prime Time?

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The son of the patient was nearly red, and gesturing when I arrived.

“Dad is not ready to go home yet!”

A hospitalist stood in the hall, looking at the floor, then looking up every once in a while to make a comment.

“We cannot change the decision.”

“There is nothing we can do.”

“It is not our decision.”

“It is the system.”

The System.

We all hate The System in its bureaucratic anonymity. And we especially hate it when someone tells us that The System is responsible for a decision that will significantly alter our expectations. The son of this particular patient had expected what had happened with his mother years before: his father would be in the hospital for a few days, then go on to the neighborhood skilled nursing facility for a few weeks of short-term rehabilitation. But times have changed, and despite the son’s own illness and compromised ability to care for himself, let alone anyone else at the time, Dad had an overnight at the hospital, but now was about to go home.

“So where do I go to complain?” the son yelled back at the doctor.

A fair question, in any circumstance. It should not be a difficult one to answer, either. But it was, or so it seemed, because the son was still yelling, and the surrounding staff were still telling him that they were sorry.

And so, the patient’s son decided to complain to me. “Look! Look! This is what they are doing.”

He handed me a discharge summary, signed and ready to go. And beneath that was the paper that explains how to appeal to Medicare if you disagree with a discharge.

So, the paper does tell patients where to go to complain–and actually, the patient’s son was in the process of following suggestion #1: “You can talk to the hospital staff, your doctor and your managed care plan (if you belong to one) about your concerns.”

But getting to suggestion #2, which involves calling the area Quality Improvement Organization (Masspro here), is not obvious to most people, even Medicare consumers. And finding that Important Message from Medicare instruction page buried within a stack of paperwork on a sick patient’s bedside table is not terribly likely, even if the patient does remember signing something downstairs–wasn’t it about HIPAA?– and even if someone has some vague idea that there must be a higher authority in the hospital, or beyond the hospital, that takes complaints–and responds to them.

So, I wonder how many patients file appeals about their discharge. I have to admit that after many years of hanging out in hospitals, I would never have guessed that my insurance company was the place I really needed to call if I disagreed with a decision that I assumed a doctor was making.

I also have to say, most people who do not feel ready to go home are never this loud about a discharge decision. Loudness upsets everyone, and often causes more problems than it solves–or so we think. Most people disagree quietly, if they think to disagree at all, and they go home. There, if things are bad enough, they may remain unsatisfied about their health in general, and possibly with the entire system meant to monitor it.  And they may well try to ignore doctors and hospitals as much as possible.

So, just in case it ever happens to you, and you are on Medicare, be prepared. If you are admitted as an inpatient to the hospital, and think that you are still sick enough that you actually want to stay admitted as an inpatient in the hospital, you may have to pay for the extra time if you do not appeal before midnight of the planned discharge date. Figuring it all out after the fact, when you feel better at home, can be an expensive option.

And of course, an impossible one if you do not notice that Important Message from Medicare until after your hospital bed turns into a pumpkin.

Now, the sticky part in this entire situation is not only the frustration of the discharge, but the fact that this patient was never actually admitted as an inpatient to the hospital.

Who knew?

Certainly not the patient, or his family, who had no idea that there was a distinction between inpatient and outpatient if a person was lying upstairs in a hospital bed. Doesn’t “observation” just mean that someone is watching over things?

And who really would know? Unless you know. You know if you work in a hospital, I hope. And you know if you are especially savvy about the healthcare system, or at least Medicare. And you know if you just watched a friend faced with a similar situation. And you just might know if you read all the mail that you get relating to Medicare–it is very possible that there was a big instruction page that you received at some time…

But more on this question next time.

Now, I want to say that I understand that family members should not be using hospitals for respite from caregiving. And I also know that ideally, care that can happen outside a hospital setting should happen outside a hospital setting. But no matter the reason, a consumer or family member should have a clear understanding of how decisions are made, and who is making them.

And I also want to say that understanding what happens in this world of hospitals does not mean that we agree with the way care is administered in them. Or that we do not think that there might be enormous chronic unmet needs in the community that end up in an emergency room because by that time, they have become acute needs.

Part of the difficulty in communicating with consumers about The System comes simply from working in The System. At a certain point, we begin to understand how these rules work, and why they exist, at least in our own little part of it. But the danger is that in that process is forgetting how twisted and confusing it all is to the people who do not encounter this world on a daily basis. And ironically, theirs are the lives that are most affected by the decisions that are made during that hospital stay.

It requires an intentional effort to make sure that hospitals give people a way to interact with their decision-makers effectively, and on a human level. Without that in place, without giving the consumer the ability to be heard, we all lose out. We blame our own frustrations and those of the consumers on a large, anonymous entity that is not only omniscient, but omnipotent, as well.  There is no meaningful dialogue. I imagine that in the long run, this is also very expensive.

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