Every year, more than 115 million patients enter emergency rooms at hospitals around the nation. And more than three-quarters of them leave with an impression of what happened -- or what should happen next -- that doesn't match what their emergency care team would want.
That's the finding of a new study led by University of Michigan Health System researchers. The results suggest that emergency room teams need to do a better job of making sure patients go home with clear information and instructions -- and that patients and their loved ones shouldn't leave until they fully comprehend their situation.
The researchers carried out detailed interviews with 140 English-speaking patients who visited one of two emergency departments, and were released to go home. They compared those interviews with the patients' medical records, and found a serious mismatch between what doctors and nurses found or advised, and what patients comprehended.
What's worse, patients were pretty sure of what they "knew" 80 percent of the time -- even if what they knew wasn't quite right.
"It is critical that emergency patients understand their diagnosis, their care, and perhaps most important, their discharge instructions," says lead author Kirsten Engel, M.D., a former U-M emergency medicine fellow and Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar who is now at Northwestern University. "It is disturbing that so many patients do not understand their post-emergency department care, and that they do not even recognize where the gaps in understanding are. Patients who fail to follow discharge instructions may have a greater likelihood of complications after leaving the emergency department."
The study's senior author agrees. "As a physician, I would like to think I could look someone in the eye and ask: 'Do you have any questions?,' and those who were confused or overwhelmed would ask for more help," says Peter Ubel, M.D., a professor of internal medicine at the U-M Medical School. "This study shows that many patients walk away from important clinical encounters confident that they know what happened and why, but with little reason to be so confident."
The researchers measured the extent to which patients' reports agreed with their doctors' records in four areas: diagnosis, emergency care that was given, post-ER care needs and what kinds of symptoms or signs would require the patient to return to the ER or seek immediate care.
Only 22 percent of patients' reports were in complete harmony with what their care teams reported on all four counts.
Fifty-eight percent of patients understood at least two of the four areas, but 20 percent were off on three or four areas of their care and follow-up needs.
After asking patients about their diagnosis, care and post-ER instructions, the team also asked them if they were not sure about any of the four areas. Interestingly, patients whose understanding perfectly matched their doctors' records were just as likely to report being unsure as patients whose understanding was lacking.
"Doctors need to not only ask patients if they have questions, but ask them to explain, in their own words, what they think is wrong with their health and what they can do about it," says Ubel. "And patients need to ask their doctors more questions, and even need to explain, to their doctors, what they think is going on."
The biggest area of misunderstanding or lack of comprehension was post-emergency care -- that is, what steps the patient needs to take to be seen by their regular doctor or a specialist, how soon to see a doctor, or what medicines or self-care steps they need to take, how to take them, and when.
Ubel, Engel and their colleagues found that 34 percent of the deficiencies in patient comprehension reflected a less-than-complete understanding of what their ER team recommended they do after they left the ER. Meanwhile, 22 percent of the deficiencies in the study had to do with patients' understanding of what symptoms or changes in their condition should spur them to return to the ER.
Recently, the U-M Health System introduced a program that aims directly at this problem: the Emergency Medicine Consult/Referral Service, run by the Department of Emergency Medicine and the Physician and Consumer Communications division of Public Relations & Marketing Communications.
It is staffed by referral coordinators who follow up with ER patients by phone within 24 hours of their ER visit, to help schedule appointments with U-M physicians for specialty care if the patients' insurance allows it or make sure they know that they need to schedule an appointment elsewhere.
More than 12,000 follow-up appointments have been scheduled for recent U-M ER patients since the program began in February 2007, and 81 percent of those patients have arrived for their scheduled appointments, up from 59 percent before the program began. Appointment cancellations are also down.
Before the program began, 24 percent of U-M ER patients who needed a follow-up appointment never scheduled one. And many patients and clinicians who did try to arrange follow-up care went through a frustrating and confusing process that is repeated every day in hospitals around the country. The new call center offers a standardized, centralized way to make sure patients get scheduled to see the provider they need soon after their ER visit.
The new study involved patients from ages 18 to 83 years, 59 percent of whom were women. Nineteen percent of patients were African-American, and 68 percent were white, with the remaining percentage being other races or without a race recorded on their record. Thirty-five percent had a high school education or less. Patients were given a brief cognition test before being interviewed, to make sure their thinking and understanding abilities were normal. In some cases, caretakers were also interviewed.
In addition to Engel and Ubel, who directs the Program for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine, the new study's authors include Michele Heisler, M.D., MPA, Dylan Smith, Ph.D., Claire Robinson, MPH, and Jane Forman, M.D. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the U-M Clinical Scholars Program.
- Engel et al. Patient Comprehension of Emergency Department Care and Instructions: Are Patients Aware of When They Do Not Understand? Annals of Emergency Medicine, 2008; DOI: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2008.05.016
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