By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – Patients sent home from the hospital and taking multiple prescription drugs may be less likely to have repeat hospitalizations when they receive follow-up calls from a pharmacist, a small experiment suggests.

Telephone outreach from pharmacists has long been linked to higher odds that patients will take all of their medicines as prescribed, researchers note in The British Journal of Clinical Pharmacy. But research to date hasn’t provided a clear picture of whether there could be additional benefits like reducing complications that send recently discharged patients back to the hospital.

For the current study, researchers compared outcomes for 221 adult patients scheduled to receive calls from pharmacists within one week of discharge, and again at one and three months, with a control group of 221 similar patients who were not assigned to get pharmacist calls. All the participants were taking 10 or more prescribed medications, and nearly two-thirds were age 65 or older.

Compared to patients who didn’t get calls, those who got all three follow-up calls were 78 percent less likely to have a repeat hospitalization within 30 days and 66 percent less likely to be readmitted within 90 days, the study found.

“Patients who received the telephone calls became less concerned about their medicine and there was evidence that they improved their medication taking behavior (adherence),” said senior study author James Charles McElnay, a pharmacy researcher at Queen’s University Belfast in the UK.

“The decreased rehospitalization rate led to significant financial savings, and patients were very satisfied with the new service,” McElnay said by email.

By the end of the study, patients who received all or some of the calls from pharmacists were more convinced of the necessity of taking all their medicines as prescribed than people who didn’t get the calls. With the phone outreach, patients also had fewer concerns about safety and side effects.

One limitation of the study is that it was conducted at a single medical center, using hospital pharmacists, and results might not reflect what would happen with follow-up calls from pharmacists in other settings like retail drugstores.

Researchers also lacked data on the cause for repeat hospitalizations, and lacked data on a variety of other factors that might influence a patient’s odds of repeat hospitalization.

Evidence to date on interventions to follow-up with patients after discharge to prevent readmissions has been of mixed quality and produced highly variable results, noted Dr. Michael Barnett, a researcher at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston who wasn’t involved in the study.

“I think in general we have learned that doing something is better than doing nothing, and comprehensive interventions seem to work better, but not always,” Barnett said by email.

What the current study and others that have investigated efforts to curb readmissions do clearly show is that patients need to be clear on their plans for follow-up care before they leave the hospital, Barnett said.

“They should always see their primary care physician within 7 to 14 days of leaving the hospital unless they are told it’s not necessary,” Barnett advised. “I can’t tell you the number of problems I need to readjust after a patient leaves the hospital.”

SOURCE: British Journal of Clinical Pharmacy, online January 23, 2019.