Penalizing Readmissions After Sepsis Could Do More Harm Than Good*

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In the past few years, we have learned much about the epidemiology of hospital readmission in sepsis survivors. Postsepsis readmissions are common and costly (1); many may be preventable (2); and they account for a greater proportion of all readmissions than any other index hospitalization diagnoses (3).
In this issue of Critical Care Medicine, Norman et al (4) show that readmission rates after sepsis also vary widely across U.S. hospitals. In the study, they measured all-cause 30-day readmissions after sepsis using a 100% sample of Medicare beneficiaries spanning 3 years. Following the methods used by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) (5) for other conditions, they adjusted for demographics and comorbidity burden in order to generate a “risk-standardized” readmission rate (RSRR) for each hospital. The mean RSRR after sepsis was 29.2%, similar to prior studies (2). However, the RSRR varied widely across hospitals, from 22.2% for a fifth percentile hospital to 37.8% for a 95th percentile hospital.
So, what must be done to tackle this pesky problem? Some have argued that sepsis hospitalizations should be included in the CMS Hospital Readmission Reduction Program (HRRP) (3). In this scenario, hospitals with greater than expected readmission rates after sepsis would face financial penalties. In 2017, total CMS penalties for readmissions following conditions already included in the HRRP will increase to a record high of $528 million (6). But, as we know from clinical practice, some treatments are worse than the disease they are intended to treat, so the decision to add sepsis to the list of penalized conditions should not be made lightly.
Norman et al (4) provide important information about which type hospitals would fare poorly under such a readmission penalty. Hospitals with higher RSRRs were more likely to be teaching institutions and to care for a greater proportion of underserved patients. Furthermore, hospitals with higher RSRRs had better overall quality, as measured by a composite quality score that incorporated a variety of metrics (process measures, outcomes measures, and patient experience scores) reported on CMS’s Hospital Compare website. Hospitals in the top quartile of hospital quality by this composite score had a RSRR of 32%—significantly worse than bottom-quartile hospitals (27.5%). Thus, as has been seen for other conditions (7), hospitals that are delivering high-quality medical care by other measures, and caring more underserved patients, would be disproportionately affected by a sepsis readmission penalty.
There are several potential explanations for the wide variation in readmission rates and the counter-intuitive relationship between RSRR and hospital quality. One possible explanation is residual confounding. Recent studies suggest a variety of factors beyond demographics and comorbidities are important for predicting a patient’s readmission risk—but are not available in claims data (8). Furthermore, even the very best models built on robust clinical data extracted from the electronic health record still struggle to predict readmissions with high accuracy (8, 9). Current studies are now incorporating qualitative data, such as patient interviews, in hopes of finding better readmission predictors (10). In the meantime, because we cannot predict risk of readmission with sufficient accuracy using claims data, much of the observed variation in RSRRs may be due to unmeasured factors, not differences in the quality of medical care. In short, the wide variation may be due to noise, rather than signal.
Based on differences in characteristics between hospitals with available quality data and those without (approximately 40% of hospitals in the current study), it is also possible that including institutions which are often excluded from hospital-level analyses would result in different associations.

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