July 02, 2017

To Transfer or Not to Transfer

With the Senate’s attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act temporarily on hold, I turned my attention to the MedPAC report sent to Congress earlier this month, its annual report on “Medicare and the Health Care Delivery System.”  MedPAC, I once said, is one of the most-important-organizations-you-never-heard of. It is an independent group of 17 commissioners appointed by the US Comptroller General that advises Congress on the Medicare program. Some of Medicare’s most influential programs in recent years, such as the readmissions reduction program and the hospital acquired conditions reduction program, had their origins in MedPAC recommendations.

One  chapter that I found particularly intriguing was the one on hospital and SNF (skilled nursing facility) use by Medicare beneficiaries who reside in nursing facilities. Much attention has been paid to patients going from the hospital to home and back to the hospital, and a fair amount of attention accorded to patients going from the hospital to the SNF (rehab) and back to the hospital. But this section addressed a different population: the frailest 1.6 million people in America, those living in long term care facilities. It asked whether they were being appropriately transferred to the acute care hospital. As the MedPAC report noted, these are patients who often get into trouble when they are hospitalized: they are prone to falling, developing delirium, suffering from hospital-associated infections, and to experiencing the adverse effects of “polypharmacy,” the prescribing of multiple medications. These are individuals who live in an environment that provides nursing care 24/7 along with personal care, as well as access to physicians, prescription medications, and physical therapists. Surely it would be better for the nursing home residents—and for Medicare’s bottom line—if they could be treated where they live. Are they? If not, why not?

The answer is that they aren’t cared for in the nursing facility as often as they should be. The single most important factor determining if a person is treated in the nursing home or sent to the hospital is the availability of on-site medical care, both physicians (or advanced practice clinicians such as physician assistants or nurse practitioners) and diagnostic modalities (such as x-rays).

Suddenly this conclusion had a familiar ring and I remembered that 35 years ago, during my fellowship in geriatric medicine, I decided to study why nursing home residents were transferred to the acute care hospital. I spent many long hours in the emergency department of Boston City Hospital examining medical records—I didn’t stop until I had identified 100 patients who arrived in the ED from any of 22 area nursing homes. During the same period, 338 older individuals who lived in the community, in their own homes, had sought care, and these people served as controls. What I found was that the patients coming from the nursing home were remarkably similar to those coming from home in terms of their severity of illness. They were, on average, older (83 compared to 77), whiter (92 percent compared to 56 percent), and more likely to be female (64 percent compared to 51 percent). They were more apt to present with fever or a change in their mental status, both common problems with increasing age. But otherwise, the two groups looked very similar from a medical perspective. I concluded that we could increase the efficiency of medical resource utilization and promote better care if we simply improved on-site care in nursing homes. Almost exactly what MedPAC found in its analysis today.

To be sure, some nursing homes have programs in place that go a long way to rectifying the situation, and CMS has supported several pilot programs designed to avoid hospitalizing nursing home residents. These programs have several features in common: they enhance the treatment available in the nursing home by using advanced practice clinicians or providing in-service training to other staff members; and they encourage advance care planning by residents and their families to promote discussions of prognosis, preferences, and planning for future illness.

So why, after over three decades, do we still transfer many patients from the nursing home to the hospital? Why don’t we provide more on-site medical care? The reasons are complex and include an historical lack of interest by physicians in the frailest, oldest patients as well as poor reimbursement for nursing home medical care. But fundamentally, what the enduring problem shows is that we continue to fail to recognize that people in nursing homes—and their families—do want treatment of their medical problems. They may be willing to forgo the most invasive and burdensome forms of treatment—such as ICU care, ventilator care, and major surgery—but that doesn’t mean they are satisfied with a focus exclusively on comfort. If all the nursing home can offer is Tylenol and oxygen, perhaps along with morphine or other opioids, then nursing home residents will want to go to the hospital when they become acutely ill. 

We need to offer nursing home residents a viable alternative to the extremes of comfort care only, on the one hand, or maximally aggressive care on the other. And we need to explain what the various approaches to treatment would mean for them. Only then will we stanch the flow from the nursing home to the hospital.

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