Best practices for improving care with patient follow-up

Guest post by Tom Scaletta, M.D., medical director of emergency services at Edward Healthcare in Naperville, Illinois

Healthcare organizations can no longer afford to send patients home and then simply close the file on their care. Instead, a more proactive and timely approach to patient follow-up is being driven by healthcare's focus on improving safety and reducing risk. The importance of follow-up is further buoyed by the growing emphasis on patient satisfaction scores and their link with reimbursement.

Think for a moment about traditional patient follow-up strategies, which typically include satisfaction surveys mailed to patients after discharge. While certainly helpful, this kind of follow-up offers little more than a stagnant, vague recollection of the encounter--usually weeks after the fact. It is primarily retrospective in nature; few proactive measures can be taken as a result. Furthermore, given the small sample size of many satisfaction surveys, their utility often is limited to Centers for Medicare & Medicaid reporting or to the quarterly benchmarking of a department as a whole against competitors.

By contrast, taking steps to contact patients immediately after discharge can give healthcare organizations valuable real-time opportunities to improve patient care, reduce readmissions and understand important patient perceptions. Rather than viewing a "still image" of the care experience, organizations need to capture "moving video" feedback that more accurately reflects the post-discharge clinical situation for as many individual patients as possible, and assures they are maintaining an appropriate trajectory toward maximum recovery.

Tailor follow-up for maximum impact

For follow-up to be effective, it must address the reason why a patient presented, as well as what occurred during the encounter. It is especially important any time a patient presents for a procedure or is advised to change his or her medical care plan.

Take, for example, a patient who is prescribed a new medication. Contacting that patient shortly after the visit allows providers to ensure the prescription is filled, clarify questions about the dosage or potential drug interactions, and safeguard against possible side effects.

Even when there is no change in the care plan, immediate follow-up with patients offers better insight into their perceptions about the service rendered. For instance, although an emergency department visit for a simple laceration seldom has any long-term care implications, healthcare organizations still can monitor the quality of staff service with questions such as, "Did staff see you in a timely manner?" or "Was the room tidy upon your arrival?"