Original Research

Communication and information deficits in patients discharged to rehabilitation facilities: An evaluation of five acute care hospitals




The quality of discharge documentation in patients discharged to rehabilitation centers and other subacute facilities is less well studied than that of patients discharged home.


To evaluate the quality of information transfer among patients discharged from acute hospitals to subacute facilities across an integrated healthcare delivery system.


Retrospective evaluation of discharge documentation packets of selected patients.


Five acute care hospitals of the Partners Healthcare System.


We measured the presence of specific data elements required to safely care for patients after discharge, including all data elements required by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (TJC).


A total of 1501 discharge documentation packets were reviewed from March 2005 through June 2007. Only 1055 (70.3%) discharge summaries had all the information required by TJC, with physical examination at admission and condition at discharge most often missing (in 11.4% and 14.2% of cases, respectively). Other deficiencies not mandated by TJC included a list of preadmission medications (missing in 20.3%) and reasons for changes in these medications at discharge (35.3%), mention of pending test results (47.2%), and postdischarge management and follow‐up plans (11.1%).


We found room for improvement in the inclusion of data elements required for the safe transfer of patients from acute hospitals to subacute facilities, especially in areas such as medication reconciliation, pending test results, and adequate follow‐up plans. Journal of Hospital Medicine 2009;4:E28–E33. © 2009 Society of Hospital Medicine.

Copyright © 2009 Society of Hospital Medicine

Effective communication among physicians during the hospital discharge process is critical to patient care. Patients are at high risk of having an adverse drug event,1 readmission, or death2 during the transition from hospital to home.3 Ineffective communication between inpatient and outpatient providers has been implicated as a leading cause of adverse events.35 Conversely, efforts to improve communication have been shown to improve compliance with follow‐up tests and decrease readmission rates.6, 7 Recently, the absence of several specific data elements in discharge documentation have been shown to be common and to have potential for patient harm, including test results that are pending at the time of discharge.8, 9 Unexplained discrepancies between preadmission and discharge medication regimens are also common and potentially dangerous.1

According to the Joint Commission for Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (TJC), the following elements should be included in discharge summaries: the reason for hospitalization; significant findings; procedures performed and care, treatment, and services provided; the patient's condition at discharge; and information provided to the patient and family, as appropriate.10 TJC also advocates medication reconciliation, a process of identifying the most accurate list of all medications a patient is takingincluding name, dosage, frequency, and routeand using this list to provide correct medications for patients anywhere within the health care system.11

Despite the importance of complete communication among providers at hospital discharge, a recent systematic review showed that discharge summaries often lacked important information such as diagnostic test results (missing from 33%‐63%), treatment or hospital course (7%‐22%), discharge medications (2%‐40%), test results pending at discharge (65%), patient or family counseling (90%‐92%), and follow‐up plans (2%‐43%).1

Most of the studies addressing this issue have evaluated communication pitfalls between acute care hospitals and primary care physicians among patients discharged home.17 In contrast, the quality of discharge documentation among patients discharged to rehabilitation centers and other subacute care facilities has been less well studied, perhaps due to relatively smaller numbers of patients discharged to such facilities. This communication is as or more important because these patients are potentially more vulnerable and their medical conditions more active than for patients discharged home.12 Furthermore, discharge information from acute care hospitals will often form the basis for admission orders at subacute facilities. Last, these patients will have a second transition in care (from subacute facility to home) whose quality is dependent at least in part on the quality of communication during the first transition.

The aim of this study was to evaluate the quality of information transfer among patients discharged from acute hospitals to subacute facilities across an integrated healthcare delivery system. The long‐term goals of this effort were to determine the areas most in need of improvement, to guide interventions to address these problems, and to track improvements in these measures over time as interventions are implemented and refined.


This observational study was conducted as part of a quality improvement project evaluating the quality of information provided during the discharge process across Partners Health Care System. The institutional review boards of the participating institutions approved the study.

Study Sample

We evaluated a sample of discharge documentation packets (eg, discharge summaries, discharge orders, nursing instructions, care coordination, and physical/occupational therapy notes) of patients discharged from all 5 acute care hospitals of the Partners Healthcare System to 30 subacute facilities (rehabilitation hospitals and skilled nursing facilities) from March 2005 through June 2007.

For reviewers at acute sites, discharge documentation packets were randomly selected each quarter using a random number generator within Microsoft Excel (Microsoft, Redmond, WA). At subacute sites, reviewers selected which packets to review, although they were encouraged to review all of them. Random selection of packets could not be achieved at subacute sites because reviews took place on the day of admission to the subacute facility. All reviewers received 1 hour of training on how to evaluate discharge packets, including review of a standardized teaching packet with 1 of the coauthors (J.L.S. or T.O.).

Two of the 5 acute care hospitals in the study are academic medical centers and the other 3 are community hospitals. Reviewers were a mix of trained medical residents or nurse practitioners at acute sites and admitting physicians or nurse practitioners at receiving subacute sites.

Fifty packets were reviewed per acute site per quarter. This provided roughly 10% precision around our estimates (ie, if compliance with a measure were 80%, the 95% confidence interval around this estimate would be 70%‐90%). This sample size is consistent with those used to obtain other national benchmarks, such as those for National Hospital Quality Measures, which generally require at least 35 cases per quarter.13


A multidisciplinary team at Partners derived, reviewed, and refined a minimum data set required to appropriately care for patients during the first 72 hours after transfer from an acute care hospital to a subacute facility. Several of these measures are required by TJC. Other measures were either modifications of TJC measures made to facilitate uniform data collection (eg, history and physical examination at admission instead of significant findings) or additional data elements (not required by TJC) felt to be important to patient care based on the medical literature and interviews with receiving providers at subacute facilities. All measures were refined by the multidisciplinary team with input from additional subspecialists as needed (see Table 1 for the final list of measures).

Measured Data Elements at Discharge
 Reason(s) for Admission
Joint Commission requirementsA focused history
A focused physical exam
Pertinent past medical history
Treatment rendered
Discharge diagnosis(es)
Condition on discharge
Discharge summary
Any information missing
Non‐Joint Commission requirements
Medication informationDischarge medications
Drug allergies
Preadmission medication information
Explanation for any differences between preadmission and discharge medications
Test results informationLatest pertinent laboratory results
Pertinent radiology results
Test results pending at time of transfer
Overall assessmentWere management and follow‐up plans adequately described?
Did you uncover a significant condition not mentioned in the discharge packet?

Data Collection

After reviewing the entire discharge documentation packet, reviewers completed a survey concerning the inclusion of the required data elements. Surveys were completed online using Perseus Survey Solutions 6.0 (Perseus Development Corp., Braintree, MA) in the month following discharge (for reviewers at acute care sites) or within 24 hours of admission to the subacute facility (for reviewers at subacute sites). To verify the accuracy and completeness of packets, reviewers at acute sites were instructed to compare the discharge documentation to a review of the inpatient medical record. Similarly, reviewers at subacute sites were instructed to complete their evaluations after admitting each patient to their facility.


The primary outcome was the proportion of packets that contained each data element. In addition, we calculated the proportion of packets that contained all applicable elements required by TJC and all applicable data elements measured in the study. Last, we evaluated two global (albeit subjective) measures of satisfaction with the packet: Were management and follow‐up plans adequately described? (both components needed to be adequately described to get credit for this question) and Did you uncover a significant condition not mentioned in the discharge packet? Significant conditions were defined as active medical problems requiring management during or immediately following the hospitalization.

Statistical Analysis

Results were calculated as proportions, odds ratios, and 95% confidence intervals (CI), using SAS version 9.1 (SAS Institute, Inc., Cary, NC). Simple logistic regression was used to compare inclusion of data elements between medical and surgical services and between academic medical centers and community hospitals. To evaluate interrater reliability, 2 reviewers (both at acute sites) independently evaluated 29 randomly chosen charts, each with 12 data elements.


A total of 1501 discharge documentation packets were reviewed, including 980 patients (65%) from a medical unit and 521 patients (35%) from a surgical unit. Based on 2007 data, these packets represent approximately 4% of all eligible discharges to subacute facilities. Patients discharged from 1 of the 2 academic medical centers represented 44% of the sample. A total of 644 discharge packets (43%) were reviewed at acute sites and 814 packets (54%) were reviewed at subacute sites. Information about reviewer site was missing in 43 discharge packets (3%). For the 29 charts independently reviewed by 2 reviewers, there was complete agreement for 331 out of 348 data elements (95.1%).

Only 1055 (70%) discharge summaries had all the information required by TJC (Table 2). Physical examination at admission (a component of significant findings, as noted above) and condition at discharge were the 2 elements most often missing. The defect‐free rate varied by site, with a range of 61% to 76% across the 5 acute care hospitals (data not shown).

Inclusion of Discharge Data Elements
 Sample SizeMissing [n (%)]95% CI Missing %
  • Abbreviation: CI, confidence interval.

Joint Commission requirements
Reason(s) for admission149714 (0.9)0.41.4
A focused history149365 (4.4)3.35.3
A focused physical exam1493170 (11.4)9.713
Pertinent past medical history149469 (4.6)3.55.6
Treatment rendered149433 (2.2)1.42.9
Discharge diagnosis(es)148053 (3.6)2.64.5
Condition on discharge1462208 (14.2)12.416.0
Discharge summary147590 (6.1)4.87.3
Any information missing1501447 (29.7)27.432.0
Non‐Joint Commission requirements
Medication information
Discharge medications149119 (1.3)0.71.8
Drug allergies147088 (6.0)4.77.2
Preadmission medication information1460297 (20.3)18.322.4
Explanation for any differences between preadmission and discharge medications1060374 (35.3)32.038.1
Test results information
Latest pertinent lab results1460261 (17.9)15.919.8
Pertinent radiology results1303139 (10.7)912.4
Test results pending at time of transfer341160 (47.2)41.952.5
Overall assessment
Were management and follow‐up plans adequately described?1461No (%): 161 (11.1)95% CI No %: 9.512.7
Did you uncover a significant condition not mentioned in the discharge packet?1469Yes (%): 162 (11.0)95% CI Yes %: 9.413.0
All applicable elements present1501503 (33.5)31.135.9

The rates of inclusion of other (non‐TJC required) data elements are shown in Table 2. Most often missing were preadmission medication regimens, any documented reason for any difference between preadmission and discharge medications, pertinent laboratory results, and an adequate follow‐up plan (including who to follow up with, when to follow‐up, and a list of tasks to be accomplished at the follow‐up visit). Notation regarding significant test results that were pending at the time of transfer was missing in 160 of 341 applicable patients (47%), and in 162 patients (11%), physicians uncovered a significant condition that was not mentioned in the discharge documentation. Only 503 (33.5%) discharge documentation packets had all applicable measures present. In addition, the discharge summary was not received at all on the day of discharge according to the receiving site in 90 patients (6%).

Reviewers were asked in a separate question which missing data were necessary for patient care. Data elements most often cited were explanations for any medication discrepancies and test results pending at the time of the hospital discharge.

Community hospitals had a higher rate of inclusion of TJC‐required data elements when compared to academic medical centers (Table 3). Also, among non‐TJC required data elements, inclusion rates were higher among the community hospitals, especially regarding information about medication discrepancies, pending test results, and follow‐up information (Table 3).

Completeness of Discharge Documentation by Site and Service
 Total (n)All Elements Present [n (%)]OR (95% CI)
  • Abbreviations: CI, confidence interval; OR, odds ratio.

Joint Commission requirements
Hospital type
Community hospitals949826 (87)2.7 (2.13.6)
Academic medical centers541384 (71)Ref.
Medical services1013745 (73)1.3 (1.01.7)
Surgical services488332 (68)Ref.
Explanation for any medication discrepancies Yes [n (%)] 
Hospital type
Community hospitals718550 (76)5.0 (3.86.5)
Academic medical centers342136 (39)Ref.
Medical services754529 (70)2.2 (1.72.9)
Surgical services306157 (51)Ref.
Test results pending at time of transfer Yes [n (%)] 
Hospital type
Community hospitals172109 (63)2.4 (1.53.7)
Academic medical centers16971 (42)Ref.
Medical services227146 (64)4.2 (2.66.9)
Surgical services11434 (30)Ref.
Follow‐up plans adequately described Yes [n (%)] 
Hospital type
Community hospitals968883 (91)1.7 (1.22.4)
Academic medical centers543466 (85)Ref.
Medical services983862 (87)0.67 (0.51.0)
Surgical services478437 (91)Ref.

Although no differences were found between medical and surgical services regarding compliance with TJC requirements, a difference was noted in documentation of explanations of medication discrepancies and pending test results, with medical services performing better in both measures (Table 3).

In general, reviewers at subacute sites more often evaluated packets as deficient than reviewers at acute sites, up to an absolute difference of 33% in the proportion of missing data, depending on the data element (see Appendix, Table 1).


Our study evaluated the completeness of documentation in the discharge summaries of patients discharged from acute care to subacute care facilities. Our results for the inclusion of TJC‐required data elements were similar to those quoted in the literature for patients discharged home.6 Our results also demonstrated a high rate of other missing data elements that are arguably of equal or greater importance, including reasons for discrepancies between preadmission and discharge medication regimens and tests that are pending at the time of discharge.1, 8, 9 Our results also demonstrated the relatively poorer performance of academic centers compared to community hospitals regarding inclusion of information about medication reconciliation, follow‐up, pending test results, and complete information required by TJC. Finally, we found that patients discharged from surgical services more often lacked documentation of medication discrepancies and pending test results compared with patients from medical services.

To our knowledge, this is one of the first studies looking at the quality of information transfer in patients discharged to subacute care facilities. The results of this study are not surprising given the known problems with general information transfer at hospital discharge.1 The fact that community hospitals provided more complete information than academic medical centers for certain data elements may be due to the difference between residents and more senior physicians preparing discharge documentation. Such differences could reflect differences in experience, training, and degree of appreciation for the importance of discharge documentation, and/or restrictions in work hours among residents (eg, resulting in time‐pressure to complete discharge summaries and/or summaries being written by residents who know the patients less well). These hypotheses deserve further exploration. The differences between medical and surgical services should also be validated and explored in other healthcare systems, including both academic and community settings.

The results of this study should be viewed in light of the study's limitations. Packets evaluated by reviewers at subacute facilities were chosen by the reviewers and may not have been representative of all patients received by that facility (in contrast to those reviewed at the acute sites, which were chosen at random and more likely to be representative, although we did not formally test for this). It is possible that reviewers at subacute sites selected the worst discharge documentation packets for evaluation. Second, evaluations by reviewers at subacute sites did not distinguish between information missing from discharge documentation and failure to receive the documentation at all from the acute care hospital (again in contrast to reviewers at acute sites, who always had access to the documentation). Lastly, reviewers at acute and subacute sites may have graded packets differently due to their different clinical perspectives. These 3 factors may explain the relatively poorer results of discharge packets reviewed by reviewers at subacute sites. Further study would be needed to distinguish among these possibilities (eg, having acute and subacute reviewers answer the same questions for the same discharge packets to allow us to measure interrater reliability between the different kinds of reviewers; explicitly asking subacute reviewers about receipt of each piece of documentation; comparing the distribution of diagnosis‐related group [DRG] codes and hospital length of stay in evaluated vs. total discharge packets as a measure of representativeness). We also cannot rule out the possibility of reviewer bias, but all reviewers were trained in a standardized fashion and we know that reliability of assessments were high, at least among reviewers at acute sites. Last, we did not measure actual or potential adverse events caused by these information deficits.

As part of a Partners‐wide initiative to improve transitions in care, the results were presented to the administrations of each of the 5 acute care hospitals. The Partners High Performance Medicine Transition team then began work with a steering committee (composed of representatives from each hospital) to address these deficiencies. Since then, the hospitals have taken several steps to improve the quality of information transfer for discharged patients, including the following:

  • Technological improvements to the hospitals' discharge ordering systems to actively solicit and/or autoimport the required information into discharge documentation.

  • Creation of discharge templates to record the required information on paper.

  • Provision of feedback to clinicians and their service chiefs regarding the ongoing quality of their discharge documentation.

  • Creation of an online Partners‐wide curriculum on discharge summary authorship, with a mandatory quiz to be taken by all incoming clinicians.


In conclusion, we found room for improvement in the inclusion of data elements required for the safe transfer of patients from acute hospitals to subacute facilities, especially in areas such as medication reconciliation, pending test results, and adequate follow‐up plans. We also found variation by site and type of service. For patients discharged to rehabilitation and other subacute facilities, improvement is needed in the communication of clinically relevant information to those providing continuing care.



Differences in evaluation scores between reviewers at acute and Sub‐Acute Sites
JCAHO IndicatorsReviews from Sub‐Acute Sites (N = 814)*Reviews from Acute Sites (N = 644)*
Sample SizeMissing N%95% CISample SizeMissing%95% CI
  • Information about the reviewer was missing in 43 cases

Reason(s) for admission81291.10.41.864340.60.011.2
A focused history810496.14.47.7642162.51.33.7
A focused physical exam81013116.213.718.7641345.33.67.0
Pertinent past medical history810506.24.57.86421422.01.13.3
Treatment rendered811293.62.34.964140.60.011.2
Discharge diagnosis(es)806597.35.59.163071.10.31.9
Condition on discharge8009211.59.313.762210917.514.520.5
Discharge summary809779.57.511.5624111.80.72.8
Any information missing
Medication InformationSample SizeMissing%95% CISample SizeMissing%95% CI
Discharge medications811121.50.72.363860.90.21.7
Drug allergies811475.84.27.4639355.53.77.2
Explanation for any differences between preadmission and discharge medications54227550.746.5554988817.714.321.0
Test results informationSample SizeMissing%95% CISample SizeMissing%95% CI
Latest pertinent lab results79017822.519.625.46297311.69.114.1
Pertinent radiology results66811016.513.719.3601274.52.86.2
Test results pending at time of transfer1838747.540.354.81527348.040.156.0
Management InformationSample SizeNo%95% CISample SizeNo%95% CI
Were management and follow‐up plans adequately described?79412115.212.717.76317912.59.915.1
Sample SizeYes%95% CISample SizeYes%95% CI
Did you uncover a significant condition not mentioned in the discharge packet?79311714.812.317.2635386.04.47.8