Reducing hospital readmission rates is an important clinical and policy priority but whether those rates really measure the quality of hospital care isn’t clear. In a new study, researchers from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found strong evidence of a relationship between surgical readmission rates and quality of surgical care. The finding provides an opportunity for policymakers to improve surgical quality and decrease readmission costs and supports plans by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to expand its readmission penalty program to include surgical procedures.

“Our findings suggest that focusing on surgical readmissions may be a smart policy approach to both improving care and reducing unnecessary spending,” said Ashish Jha, professor of health policy at HSPH and the study’s senior author.

The study appears in the Sept. 19, 2013 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Much of the policy focus to date has been on reducing readmissions after hospitalization for medical conditions, such as heart failure and pneumonia, but this approach has been controversial. Readmissions for medical conditions are primarily driven by how sick the patients are and whether they live in poor or better-off communities; the link between hospital quality and readmissions is less clear. The authors postulated that surgical care may be different—and sought to find out if there was a relationship between readmission rates after surgery and the quality of surgical care in that hospital.

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