PHILADELPHIA (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – How a patient reacts to postoperative pain and how the pain progresses or regresses can be key predictors for 30-day hospital readmissions and emergency department visits after hospital discharge, according to an analysis of more than 200,000 operations in a national database.

“Surgical readmissions, as we all know, have come under increased scrutiny, because they are associated with both increased costs and resource utilization, and preventable readmissions are thought to account for up to 17% of all hospital payments, resulting in a cost average of $13,433 per readmission,” Mary T. Hawn, MD, FACS , of Stanford (Calif.) University said in reporting results of the study. That estimate is based on Medicare data on 3.9 million readmissions in 2013. The study findings were reported at the annual meeting of the American Surgical Association.

The study sample included 211,213 operations in the Veterans Affairs Surgical Quality Improvement Program during 2008-2014, 45% of which were orthopedic in nature, 37% general, and 18% vascular. The overall 30-day unplanned readmission rate was 10.8% and the 30-day ED utilization rate was 14.2%, Dr. Hawn said.

The study identified six distinct postoperative inpatient pain trajectories based on postop pain scores: persistently low (4.5%); mild to low (9%); persistently mild (15.3%); moderate to low (12.1%); persistently moderate (40.2%); and persistently high (18.9%). One of the study objectives, Dr. Hawn said, “was to see if we could identify patterns of postoperative pain trajectories in a surgical cohort, and to describe these subpopulations by their trajectories, and then to determine whether there was an association with postdischarge health care utilization.” The hypothesis was that inpatient postoperative pain trajectory would be associated with 30-day readmission and ED visits as well as postop complications, Dr. Hawn added.

Patients with high pain trajectories had highest rates of postdischarge readmission and ED visits, 14.4% and 16.3%, respectively, Dr. Hawn said.

“Patients in the low-pain categories were more likely to undergo general and vascular procedures compared to orthopedic procedures in the high-pain categories,” Dr. Hawn said. “In the low-pain categories, they were older and less likely to be female. They were less likely to have independent functional status whereas patients in the high-pain category had a 26% prevalence of preoperative diagnosis of depression.”

Those in the high-pain category had a 1.5 times greater risk of an unplanned readmission and a 4 times greater risk in pain-related readmission, according to an odds ratio analysis of the data.

“As for the prevalence of our outcomes, 10.7% had an unplanned readmission. A total of 1.5% from the overall cohort had a pain-related readmission, 8.6% had an emergency visit within 30 days of discharge that did not result in a readmission, and 4.4% had at least one postdischarge complication,” Dr. Hawn said.

In his discussion, Clifford Y. Ko, MD, FACS , of the University of California, Los Angeles, asked what was the take-home for surgeons managing patients postoperatively in the era of the opioid epidemic. “For these types of patients, we need to get our colleagues, the pain specialists, involved much earlier,” Dr. Hawn said. “We need to rethink that strategy of treating the pain-score number. And I think there’s been so much national attention to this that we will stop focusing on that number as a measure of quality of care and patient satisfaction. Those are some trends we’ll see in the future.”

Neither Dr. Hawn nor Dr. Ko reported any financial disclosures

The complete manuscript of this study and its presentation at the American Surgical Association’s 137th Annual Meeting, April 2017, in Philadelphia, is anticipated to be published in the Annals of Surgery pending editorial review.