Preventable readmissions to surgical services: lessons learned and targets for improvement

J Am Coll Surg. 2014 Sep;219(3):382-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jamcollsurg.2014.03.046. Epub 2014 Apr 13.


Background: Hospital readmissions are under intense scrutiny as a measure of health care quality. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has proposed using readmission rates as a benchmark for improving care, including targeting them as nonreimbursable events. Our study aim was to describe potentially preventable readmissions after surgery and to identify targets for improvement.

Study design: Patients discharged from a general surgery service over 8 consecutive quarters (Q4 2009 to Q3 2011) were selected. A working group of attending surgeons defined terms and created classification schemes. Thirty-day readmissions were identified and reviewed by a 2-physician team. Readmissions were categorized as preventable or unpreventable, and by target for future quality improvement intervention.

Results: Overall readmission rate was 8.3% (315 of 3,789). The most common indication for initial admission was elective general surgery. Among readmitted patients in our sample, 28% did not undergo an operation during their index admission. Only 21% (55 of 258) of readmissions were likely preventable based on medical record review. Of the preventable readmissions, 38% of patients were discharged within 24 hours and 60% within 48 hours. Dehydration occurred more frequently among preventable readmissions (p < 0.001). Infection accounted for more than one-third of all readmissions. Among preventable readmissions, targets for improvement included closer follow-up after discharge (49%), management in the outpatient setting (42%), and avoidance of premature discharge (9%).

Conclusions: A minority of readmissions may potentially be preventable. Targets for reducing readmissions include addressing the clinical issues of infection and dehydration as well as improving discharge planning to limit both early and short readmissions. Policies aimed at penalizing reimbursements based on readmission rates should use clinical data to focus on inappropriate hospitalization in order to promote high quality patient care.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Readmission / statistics & numerical data*
  • Postoperative Complications / epidemiology
  • Postoperative Complications / prevention & control*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Surgery Department, Hospital*