Early hospital release can have steep consequences for elderly patients

Hospital readmission rates suggest it’s not uncommon for older patients to be released before they regain full health, and the results can be devastating.

After seeking medical treatment in New York City, most people can't wait for the date when they are deemed healthy enough that to be sent home from the hospital. Sadly, some patients may be released prematurely, with detectable existing conditions that require further treatment. In extreme cases, this form of hospital negligence may cause patients to suffer injuries, disabilities or even death that should have been prevented.

'Boomerang patients' not uncommon

Broad data on harm resulting from the premature discharge of hospital patients is limited. However, hospital readmission rates offer a measure of a hospital's ability to screen patients and prepare them for self-care before releasing them. Patients who are readmitted within a short time of release are often readmitted for conditions relating to the original cause of hospitalization or conditions that first developed during the hospital stay.

Medicare tracks the readmission rates of Medicare patients and penalizes hospitals with high admission rates, according to NPR. The data collected indicates that readmission is a common issue:

  • In 2009, almost 20 percent of Medicare patients had to return to the hospital within 30 days of being released.
  • This alarming rate actually represented an improvement over past years.
  • The total cost of these "revolving-door" readmissions was more than $26 billion.
  • In the next year, 2,610 hospitals, including some in New York, will face sanctions for their high readmission rates.

According to NPR, some hospitals are strengthening their discharge policies to improve the likelihood that patients will receive adequate medical care and attention following release. Some hospitals have begun proactively scheduling follow-up appointments, sending nurses to check on patients at home or offering free medicine to economically disadvantaged patients.

These policies may help reduce readmissions or ensure that developing health problems are caught early on. Still, these measures can't fully address the issue of doctors failing to provide adequate treatment by overlooking existing health issues when deciding to send patients home.

Infection causes irreversible damage

The recently settled medical malpractice case of a Rockland Valley man illustrates this risk. According to the Journal-News, in September 2010, the man visited a hospital in Nyack for an MRI. He also received an injection. He checked back into the hospital a few days later for a culture test. The results should have alerted doctors that the man was developing a severe bacterial infection, which likely originated from the injection.

Sadly, the treating physician failed to notice this and released the man the next day. By the time the man returned to the hospital two days later, the infection had badly damaged his hip. The man eventually had to undergo hip replacement surgery. He lost the ability to perform some leisure activities and his regular duties as a construction worker. His case illustrates how quickly a seemingly small medical error can escalate into a serious, even life-changing problem.

Recourse for preventable injuries

If a doctor or other medical professional provides substandard care and a patient suffers harm as a result, the patient may be able to seek compensation through a medical malpractice lawsuit. Anyone who has been hurt by a doctor's negligence should think about talking with an attorney about whether the incident constitutes malpractice.

Keywords: medical malpractice, injury, negligence