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Improved hospital environment can reduce senior readmissions

January 9, 2013

Hospital readmissions can seriously threaten healthy aging, yet they are surprisingly common. In fact, some estimates put the number of preventable readmissions in Medicare patients at around 20 percent. However, new research suggests that improving the work environment for nurses can help lower the rate considerably.

The study, published in the journal Medicare, was led by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, and analyzed data from more than 400 hospitals in New Jersey, California and Pennsylvania. The team found hospitals with good work environments had a 10 percent lower readmission rate for pneumonia patients than those with poorer environments. The rate was also lower for heart attack and heart failure patients, researchers found.

"Our results suggest that improving nurses' work environment and reducing nurses' workload are organization-wide reforms that could result in fewer readmissions for Medicare beneficiaries with common medical conditions," said lead author Matthew McHugh, a health policy expert. "This is consistent with the evidence showing significant associations between the nurse work environment, staffing, and other patient outcomes."

Not only are readmissions troublesome when it comes to independent living, they are also costly. Experts estimate that seniors returning to the hospital cost the Medicare system around $15 billion each year. In fact, the program is now fining hospitals that have rates deemed too high.

Though the work environment can have a significant impact on hospital readmissions, what senior patients do after leaving also plays an important role. In particular, making use of short term rehabilitation can ensure that seniors maintain their independence after hospitalization, whether their stay was due to injury, surgery or an illness.