Understanding the “Safe Discharge” Plan

Understanding the “Safe Discharge” Plan

A concept commonly discussed but not well-defined in healthcare is the necessity for a patient to have a “safe discharge plan.” Defining what constitutes “safe” in this context isn’t always straightforward. How much safety is required for the patient? Ultimately, the determination rests with the treating physician, who must rely on their clinical expertise (and possibly, ethical considerations) to gauge the acceptable level of risk. It’s the physician’s responsibility to assess whether the patient’s plan for leaving the hospital is sufficiently safe, regardless of the patient’s level of care status.

In research endeavors, the Conditions of Participation (CoP) serves as a foundational reference point. However, the CoP does not explicitly delineate what constitutes a safe plan. Indeed, expecting such a definition from the CoP would be unrealistic since the primary focus spelled out in 42 CFT 482.43 is to define the discharge planning process requirements, not the expectation of a safe plan, which is intentionally absent in the language. Instead, the regulation calls out an effective transition to post-discharge care, and reduction in factors that may lead to preventable hospital readmission. 

Alternatively, the American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) Code of Medical Ethics defines the ethical responsibility associated with formulating a safe discharge plan, in 1.1.8 Physician Responsibilities for Safe Patient Discharge From Health Care Facilities. Physicians are expected to balance their need to advocate on behalf of the individual patient while also recognizing the broader needs of other patients. This continues to hold true when a discharge is appealed to the Quality Improvement Organization (QIO), specifically when the reviewer evaluates the assurance of a “safe discharge” plan. This review is defined by the physician’s “professional judgement regarding the safety of a discharge,” based on the medical stability of the patient and a safe discharge plan; ironically, “safe” is not defined.

In 2006, S. Goodacre published an article in the Emergency Medicine Journal titled “Safe Discharge: an irrational, unhelpful and unachievable concept.” The article focuses on the dilemma emergency-room physicians face in determining the need for hospital admission and weighing this decision against the ability to discharge the patient home. In this fast-paced environment, compounded with pressures for emergency department (ED) throughput, physicians are faced with making quick decisions on assessing whether a patient can safely return home from the ED. When a patient’s evaluation indicates that returning home is not a straightforward option, then bedding the patient occurs.

In cases in which there’s clear medical necessity or when patients demonstrate stability within secure home environments, the decision-making process regarding admission or discharge is relatively straightforward. However, as the social complexity of a patient’s situation increases, so does the perceived risk for the physician tasked with determining the appropriate plan of care. This heightened complexity introduces ambiguity, making the concept of a “safe discharge” plan unclear. Physicians are confronted with the challenge of balancing medical needs with social factors while bearing ultimate liability for the chosen course of action. Consequently, the delineation between a safe discharge and the necessity for further care becomes increasingly nuanced in scenarios where social complexities come into play.

Indeed, despite the comprehensive efforts of a multidisciplinary care team, including the involvement of case management personnel to orchestrate a “safe” discharge plan, the threat of potential litigation or adverse patient outcomes looms heavily within hospital settings. This dynamic introduces additional pressures on attending physicians, sometimes leading to reluctance to discharge patients even when a genuinely safe discharge plan seems attainable. Instead, the focus should shift towards mitigating risks to the best of the care team’s abilities and ensuring that patients receive the support they need to navigate the post-discharge period.

The optimal strategy for hospitals to support their physicians, care teams, and the organization is to establish a clear definition of a safe discharge plan for their patients. This definition can be included in existing policies that provide procedures for patient appeal rights and discharge planning practices. Hospital compliance and ethics must be part of the discussion to provide support from a policy standpoint and at an individual case level, ensuring that decisions for socially complex patients do not rest exclusively on the physician and case management department. The hospital must consider the needs of the one against the needs of the many when patients are being deferred or holding in the ED; utilizing ethics consultations can be instrumental in navigating these complex scenarios effectively.  

Although the definition of a safe discharge can be ambiguous, here are some questions that can help clarify expectations:

  • Is the patient’s medical condition stable and manageable enough for them to continue their recovery at home, or in another care setting?
  • Does the patient and/or their caregivers have a clear understanding of the diagnosis, treatment plan, medications, follow-up appointments, and any necessary lifestyle modifications that have been arranged, or need to be made post-hospitalization?  
  • Have proactive measures been taken to ensure a seamless transition in communicating the handoff between the hospital and any other healthcare providers, facilities, or agencies involved in the patient’s treatment?
  • Has the patient been adequately educated about warning signs or potential complications post-discharge, along with guidance on who to contact if they have concerns, and provided with resources detailing where and when they should seek further medical attention if needed?

In conclusion, the concept of a “safe discharge plan” in healthcare is inherently complex. While it may lack a universally agreed-upon definition, the importance of ensuring patients’ transition from hospital to home or another care setting with adequate support and resources remains fundamental. From regulatory frameworks to ethical responsibilities and practical considerations in emergency care, this discourse has illuminated the intricate dynamics at play in the discharge planning process. However, by establishing clear definitions, incorporating ethical considerations, and fostering multidisciplinary collaboration, healthcare institutions can better support physicians and care teams in navigating these challenges.

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Tiffany Ferguson, LMSW, CMAC, ACM

Tiffany Ferguson is CEO of Phoenix Medical Management, Inc., the care management company. Tiffany serves on the ACPA Observation Subcommittee. Tiffany is a contributor to RACmonitor, Case Management Monthly, and commentator for Finally Friday. After practicing as a hospital social worker, she went on to serve as Director of Case Management and quickly assumed responsibilities in system level leadership roles for Health and Care Management and c-level responsibility for a large employed medical group. Tiffany received her MSW at UCLA. She is a licensed social worker, ACM, and CMAC certified.

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