Discharge from the Hospital

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Discharge from the Hospital



Discharge from the hospital is the point at which the patient leaves the hospital and either returns home or is transferred to another facility such as a rehabilitation center or to a nursing home. Discharge involves the medical instructions that the patient will need to fully recover. Discharge planning is a service that considers the patient’s needs after the hospital stay and may involve several different services such as visiting nursing care, physical therapy, and home blood drawing.


Hospitalization is often a short-term event, so planning for discharge may begin shortly after admission. The physicians, nurses, and case managers involved in a patient’s care are part of an assessment team that keeps in mind the patient’s preadmission level of functioning, and whether the patient will be able to return home following the current hospital admission. Information that could affect the discharge plan should be noted in the patient’s medical record s that it will be taken into account when discharge is being scheduled. The primary questions include:

  • Can this patient return to his or her preadmission situation?
  • Has there been a change in the patient’s ability to care for him- or herself?
  • Is the patient in need of services to be able to care for him- or herself?
  • Which services will the patient need?
  • Are there mental health needs that must be met?
  • Does the patient agree with the discharge plan?

While a person has been in the hospital, physicians other than the primary-care physician have been in charge of the patient’s care. Good discharge planning involves clear communication between the hospital physician(s) and the primary care physician. This may be done by telephone and/or in writing. The information to be conveyed includes:

  • a summary of the hospital stay
  • a list of test and surgeries performed, with results
  • a list of test results still pending
  • a list of tests needed after discharge, such as a repeat chest x ray
  • a list of medications the patient is being discharged with, including the dosage and frequency
  • a copy of the patient’s discharge instructions
  • when the patient should see the primary-care physician for a follow-up appointment
  • the plan for outpatient treatment, such as home intravenous antibiotics or parenteral nutrition, to ensure that responsibility for this treatment has been clearly transferred and that the primary care physician accepts the treatment responsibility
  • discharge instructions to the patient on activity level, diet, and wound care

Before leaving the hospital, the patient will receive discharge instructions that should include:

  • an explanation of the care the patient received in the hospital
  • a list of medications the patient will be taking (the dosage, times, and frequency)
  • a list of potential side effects of any newly prescribed medications
  • a prescription for any newly prescribed medications
  • when to see the primary-care physician for a follow-up appointment
  • home-care instructions, such as activity level, diet, restrictions on bathing, wound care, as well as when


Ombudsman— A patient representative who investigates patient complaints and problems related to hospital service or treatment. He or she may act as a mediator between the patient, the family, and the hospital.

Parenteral nutrition— The administration of liquid nutrition through an intravenous catheter placed in the patient’s vein.

the patient can return to work or school, or resume driving

  • signs of infection or worsening condition, such as pain, fever, bleeding, difficulty breathing, or vomiting
  • an explanation of any services the patient will now be receiving, such as visiting nurse care, including contact information

The term discharge planning may be used to refer to the service provided to help patients arrange for services such as rehabilitation, physical therapy, occupational therapy, visiting nurses, or nursing home care. This service may be provided by a case manager or by the hospital’s social service department. The patient may request this service, or the physician may make the request in the form of a referral to the department. The patient will need to be evaluated to see what services he or she requires, as well as what services he or she qualifies for (such as Meals on Wheels), or what services the patient’s insurance will cover. The patient may be discharged to the home with a visit from a visiting nurse taking place later the same day to assess the patient’s need for these services and to make arrangements for him or her in the home. A person may be discharged home only when certain equipment, such as a hospital-style bed and oxygen, has been delivered to the home. If a patient feels he or she is being discharged before he or she is ready, the patient can file a complaint with the hospital’s ombudsman.

A follow-up from the hospital staff, either physician, nurse, or case manager, should take place within two weeks of discharge to review the results of any tests that were done in the hospital that came in after the patient was discharged, to remind the patient of the follow-up appointment with the physician, to see if the patient has any questions about any new medications that were added in the hospital, and to be sure that no problems arose after discharge that have not been addressed. Such follow-up calls help to ensure a successful recovery.

A patient may experience a complication or an adverse event, an injury that happens because of medical management, as a result of care received in the hospital. In the February 2003 issue of The Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers reported how often these adverse events arose, and how severe they were. Four hundred patients were interviewed by telephone a few weeks after discharge. Seventy-six patients had suffered an adverse event during the two-week period after discharge, such as a new or worsening symptom, medication-related problems, or the need for an unexpected visit to the doctor. Of that number, 23 were determined to have been caused by error, and 24 were found to have adverse events that could have been made less severe by better care. Of all the events, about 66% were drug related and 17% were related to procedures. Three percent of the patients studied suffered permanent disability.



Wachter, Robert M., Lee Goldman, and Harry Hollander, eds. Hospital Medicine. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2000.


Forster, A. J., et al. “The Incidence and Severity of Adverse Events Affecting Patients after Discharge from the Hospital.” Annals of Internal Medicine, 138 (February 2003): 161–167.


The American Hospital Association. One North Franklin, Chicago, IL 60606.

National Center for Health Statistics. National Hospital Discharge Survey, Vital Health Stat. 153 (November 2002): 1–194.

National Institute on Aging. http://www.nih.gov/nia (accessed March 19, 2008).

Esther Csapo Rastegari, RN, BSN, EdM

Fran Hodgkins