We’ve long been intrigued by “hospital at home” care models, which deliver hospital-level care for acute conditions, supported by caregivers and technology, in a patient’s home. Stymied by the lack of payment, however, few health systems have pursued the approach. But as COVID-19 has made patients fearful of entering hospitals, we’ve had a flurry of health system leaders ask us whether they should consider launching a program now.
We think the answer is yes—with some caveats. A growing body of evidence supports its use. Cost of care is lower compared to a traditional inpatient stay. Patient satisfaction with care is high. And from a clinical perspective, hospital at home is well-established, capable of managing a number of mild- and moderate-acuity medical conditions, including exacerbations of chronic diseases like heart failure and diabetes, as well as infections like pneumonia and cellulitis, often better than a traditional hospital stay. Some programs are now using hospital at home for management of COVID-19 patients as well. Physician leaders we’ve spoken with are also interested in using the approach to manage post-operative recovery.
“Over half of our joint replacement patients spend time in skilled nursing or inpatient rehab,” one doctor told us. “People think those places are death traps now, and those cases aren’t coming back until we can find another way for them to recover.”
For patients averse to facility-based care, and systems wanting to offer an alternative, hospital at home sounds like a panacea. But experts recommend approaching it with a clear eye to the economics and ramp-up time, which can easily take 12 to 18 months. With emergency regulations released last month, Medicare will now provide payment for hospital care provided in an alternate setting, including the patient’s home—although it’s unclear whether that will continue once the COVID emergency ends. Commercial payer coverage usually requires a separate negotiation.
According to one leader, “Grass roots support of doctors is not enough. The CEO and CFO have to be on board with changing the care and payment model if it’s ever going to be more than a pilot.” But with patients and doctors becoming more comfortable with virtual care and open to new options, there is a a window of opportunity for expanding home-based care—and the longer the COVID-19 crisis lasts, the more hospital at home could provide a competitive advantage over being admitted to a busy, crowded inpatient hospital.