(Reuters Health)—When patients are hospitalized more than once in the same month, it may have more to do with their income or education levels than the quality of care they received, a U.S. study suggests.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, patients 85 and older are more likely to return to the hospital within 30 days of being sent home than people a decade or two younger, according to the analysis of data from Medicare.
But patients also have higher odds of being readmitted soon after discharge if they lack a high school diploma, have limited income and assets, or have health benefits from Medicaid.
The findings suggest that Medicare penalties for readmissions may in some instances mete out punishment for outcomes that are beyond doctors’ control, said lead study author Dr. Michael Barnett and senior author Dr. Michael McWilliams, of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“Hospitals are being penalized to a large extent based on the patients they serve,” the doctors told Reuters Health by email. “Patients admitted to hospitals with higher readmission rates are sicker and more socially disadvantaged in a variety of ways than patients admitted to hospitals with lower readmission rates.”
Under the current penalty system, Medicare deducts 3% from inpatient payments to hospitals with higher than expected readmission rates, the researchers noted in a paper online Sept. 14 in JAMA Internal Medicine. Expected rates are only adjusted for patients’ age, sex and recent diagnoses including the one from their hospital stay.
In 2014, the second year of the program, about 2,600 hospitals were fined a combined $428 million for excessive readmissions, the authors reported.
To get a better understanding of how individual patient characteristics might influence readmission rates, the researchers examined several other variables Medicare doesn’t consider in determining expected readmission rates – such as education and income levels, marital status, employment, race and ethnicity, smoking status, and drinking habits.
They linked records from the Health and Retirement Study of Americans over 50 collected between 2000 and 2010 to data from Medicare claims from 2000 to 2012. The combined analysis covered more than 8,000 hospital admissions.
The researchers sorted hospitals into quintiles based on readmission rates. They found that at least half of the observed difference in the probability of repeat hospitalizations between hospitals with the highest and lowest readmission rates might be accounted for by patient characteristics not currently considered by Medicare.
When researchers only used Medicare’s criteria comparing readmission rates, they found the probability of readmission was about 15% at facilities with the lowest rates and about 19.5% at hospitals with the highest rates.