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The medical discharge letter is an important communication tool between hospitals and other healthcare providers. Despite its high status, it often does not meet the desired requirements in everyday clinical practice. Occurring risks create barriers for patients and doctors. This present review summarizes risks of the medical discharge letter.
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The research question was answered with a systematic literature research and results were summarized narratively. A literature search in the databases PubMed and Cochrane Library for Studies between January 2008 and May 2018 was performed. Two authors reviewed the full texts of potentially relevant studies to determine eligibility for inclusion. Literature on possible risks associated with the medical discharge letter was discussed.
In total, 29 studies were included in this review. The major identified risk factors are the delayed sending of the discharge letter to doctors for further treatments, unintelligible (not patient-centered) medical discharge letters, low quality of the discharge letter, and lack of information as well as absence of training in writing medical discharge letters during medical education.
The medical discharge letter is an important communication medium between hospitals and general practitioners (GPs) and an important legal document for any queries from insurance carriers, health insurance companies, and lawyers . Furthermore, the medical discharge letter is an important document for the patient itself.
In this systematic review, articles were included if the title and/or abstract indicated the report of results of original research studies using quantitative, qualitative, or mixed method approaches. Studies in paediatric settings or studies that do not handle possible risks of the medical discharge letter were excluded, as well as reports, commentaries and letters. Electronic citations, including available abstracts of all articles retrieved from the search, were screened by two authors to select reports for full-text review. Duplicates were removed from the initial search. Nevertheless, during the search of articles the selection, publication as well as language bias must be considered. Thereafter, full-texts of potentially relevant studies were reviewed to determine eligibility for inclusion. In the following Table 1 inclusion and exclusion criteria for the studies are listed. Afterwards, key outcomes and main results were summarized. Differences were resolved by consensus. Finally, a narrative synthesis of studies meeting the inclusion criteria was conducted. Reference management software MENDELEY (Version 1.19.3) was used to organise and store the literature.
From these 29 studies, 13 studies dealt with the quality analysis of discharge letters, 12 studies with delayed transmission of medical discharge letters and just as many with the lack of information in medical discharge letters. Only few studies dealt with training on writing medical discharge letters and with understanding of patients of their medical discharge letters. The descriptive information of the included articles is presented in Table 2. Overall quality of the articles was found to be acceptable, with clearly stated research questions and appropriate used methods.
The medical discharge letters should arrive at the GP soon after hospital discharge to ensure the quickest possible further treatment . If letters are delivered weeks after the hospital stay, a continuous treatment of the patient cannot be ensured. Furthermore, the author of the medical discharge letter will no longer have current data after the discharge of the patient, which may result in a loss of important information . Interfaces between different treatment areas and organizational units are known to cause a loss of information and a lack of quality in patient handling . The improvement of information transfer between different healthcare providers during the transition of patients has been recommended to improve patient care [12, 13]. Delayed communication of findings may lead to a lack of continuity of care and suboptimal outcomes, as well as decreased satisfaction levels for both patients and GPs [14,15,16]. In a review of Kripalani et al., it was shown that 25% of discharge summaries were never received by GPs . This has several negative consequences for patients. Li et al.  found that a delayed transmission or absence of the medical discharge summary is related to patient readmission, and a study by Gilmore-Bykovskyi  found a strong relationship between patients whose discharge summaries omitted designation of a responsible clinician/clinic for follow-up care and re-hospitalisation and/or death. A Swedish study by Carlsson et al.  points out that a lack of accuracy and continuity in discharge information on eating difficulties may increase risk of undernutrition and related complications. A study of Were et al.  investigated pending lab results in medical discharge summaries and found that only 16% of tests with pending results were mentioned in the discharge summaries, and Walz et al.  found that approximately one third of the sub-acute care patients had pending lab results at discharge, but only 11% of these were documented in the medical discharge summaries.
Medical discharge letters are a key communication tool for patient safety issues . Incomplete and insufficient medical discharge letters increase the risks of readmission and myriad other complications . Langelaan et al. (2017) evaluated more than 2000 medical discharge letters and found that in about 60% of the letters essential information was missing, such as a change of the existing medication, laboratory data, and even data on the patients themselves . Accurate and complete medical discharge summaries are essential for patient safety [17, 24, 25]. Addresses; patient data, including duration of stay; diagnoses; procedures; operations; epicrisis and therapy recommendations; as well as findings in the appendix; are minimum requirements that are supposed to be included in the medical discharge letter . However, it was found that key components are often lacking in medical discharge letters, including information about follow-up and management plans [23, 26], test results [27,28,29], and medication adjustments [30,31,32,33,34,35]. In a review of Wimsett et al.  key components of a high-quality medical discharge summary were identified in 32 studies. These important components were discharge diagnosis, the received treatment, results of investigations as well as follow-up plans.
Fortunately, some study results demonstrate that information and education on writing medical discharge letters would enhance communication to the GPs and prevent errors during the patient discharge process . Minimal formal teaching about writing medical discharge summaries is common in most medical schools [39, 46]; however, a study by Shivji et al. has shown that simple, intensive educational sessions can lead to an improvement in the writing process of medical discharge summaries and communication with primary care .
Since the medical discharge letter should meet specific quality criteria, senior physicians and/or the head physician correct(s) and validate(s) the letter. The medical discharge letter therefore represents an essential learning target . Training activities and workshops are necessary for junior doctors to improve writing medical discharge letters [44, 49]. It might be also useful for young doctors to use checklists or other structured procedures to improve writing . Maher et al. showed that the use of a checklist enhanced the quality (content, structure, and clarity) of medical discharge letters written by medical students .
Delayed sending and low quality of medical discharge letters to the referring physicians, may adversely affect the further course of treatment. However, a study of Spencer et al. has determined rates of failures in processing actions requested in hospital discharge summaries in general practice. It was found that requested medication changes were not made in 17% and patient harm occurred in 8% in relation to failures .
An RTF letter has implications for patients as it may cause delays in their access to a drug. In our study, approval of resubmitted applications took about 16 to 18 months longer than the overall approval time for all NDAs and biologic licensing applications the FDA reviewed in 2018.16 A direct comparison with applications that did not receive RTF letters was not feasible in this study design, as such analysis requires a cohort study design that matches applications on several characteristics, for example, review priority and number of review of cycles.