When managing patient care transitions, timely follow up after discharge is critical.
It allows you to catch potential complications early, fill gaps in their follow-up care, and capture experience feedback while it’s still top-of-mind with the patient. But when, exactly, should you be making your calls?
If you’ve read anything about post discharge follow up, your answer is likely sometime between 24-72 hours.
This, generally speaking, is a good benchmark to set for your program. However, just like every other aspect of your post discharge follow up program, the real answer depends on each individual patient.
Why the Timing of Your Patient Follow Up is Important
Your ability to connect with patients after discharge can make or break your follow up programs. Simply put, you won't be able to coordinate care or gather experience feedback if you can't reach the patient.
Moreover, when you connect with the patient after discharge is equally critical—reaching out to patients too early (or too late) can substantially reduce the effectiveness of your outreach program. Making it much less likely you'll be able to address your patient's healthcare needs.
A primary goal of your post discharge follow up program is to provide personalized support at a time it will have the biggest, positive impact on your patient's health and their perception of your service. Unfortunately, what we're seeing across the industry is that many organizations are treating the scheduling of follow up calls as something that is one size fits all—or worse, something driven by staff availability (or lack thereof).
To successfully connect with patients after discharge—and improve healthcare outcomes—you need a process in place that allows you to reach out to patients at a time relevant to their healthcare needs.
Choosing the Right Time for the Initial Patient Follow Up Call
As the industry acquires more experience managing post discharge care, it's becoming clear that a successful follow up program requires variable call scheduling based on each patients unique healthcare situation. While this may sound overly complicated, assigning your recently discharged patients to the appropriate follow up schedule is primarily a matter of segmentation.
Let's take a moment to elaborate in greater detail why, exactly, following up with every patient within 24 hours isn't the most effective strategy. While it's true many of your patients will require next day follow up, others won't—in fact, for some, following up too soon can actually hurt your patient's experience of care.
Here's an example:
While it’s appropriate to connect with an ER outpatient within 24 hours of discharge, following up with a patient who has had a mammography isn’t. In the case of the patient who had a mammography, they may not receive the results of their tests for a few days. A call from their hospital too soon can cause unnecessary anxiety—negatively impacting the patient experience and making it less likely they will share feedback.
Certainly, an ER outpatient and a patient who has had a mammography are in completely different situations—and that's the point. Your patient follow up calling program must address each specifically.
Additionally, it's important to account for the time it takes your patients to transition from the hospital to their recovery setting. If you follow up within 24 hours, will they be settled enough to discuss their follow up care? Have they had time to fill their medications? Make an appointment?
The key is to identify what factors are at play in determining the optimal time for follow up, then create follow up schedules as appropriate. Once those are in place, you can then segment your patients based on their follow up care needs and assign them to the appropriate follow up schedule.
Scheduling Follow Up Calls Over An Extended Time Period
In addition to your initial follow up, some of your patients will require multiple calls over an extended period of time depending on their post discharge recovery plans and/or their emerging care needs.
This is especially true for your follow up programs focused on preventing the readmission of patients with certain conditions, like Congestive Heart Failure (CHF). For those patients the question then becomes, how do you determine what the appropriate schedule is for conducting on-going follow up?
Again, a one size fits all approach to scheduling follow up calls isn't the most effective strategy.
First, it's not cost effective to reach out to every patient at the same frequency over a specific time period. Moreover, contacting patients too frequently (especially those that are compliant) can reduce the impact of the engagement and the likelihood they'll pick up the phone as the program progresses—making it harder to identify and intervene on care issues at a later stage of their recovery.
Second, as we established above, the needs of each patient are unique and will require a schedule customized to their specific situation. Expanding on the CHF patient example, while each of these patients will be enrolled into the same program initially, there are many factors that can alter each patients path to successful recovery. Thus, the frequency of your follow up calls will need to increase/decrease—based on what's discovered during previous calls—to ensure the appropriate level of support and care is provided to the patient.
It's also important to note that to ensure your patients participate in these longer follow up programs, your scheduling of subsequent follow up calls will need to match the patients availability to some extent.
Variable Scheduling Makes Patient Follow Up More Effective
By segmenting your patients, assigning them to relevant follow up programs, and performing adjustments to those programs as you learn more about each patient's specific care needs, variable scheduling enables you to provide highly targeted post discharge support—ensuring you use your limited resources efficiently.
Using a customizable scheduling process allows you to connect with patients in a way that is not only relevant to their healthcare situation, but at a time when your support will have the greatest impact on patient outcomes. Following up with patients at the right time also makes it easier to capture important experience feedback, allowing you to improve the delivery of care to future patients.