The Illness Is Bad Enough. The Hospital May Be Even Worse.

But last September, Ms. Lewandowski entered a hospital after a compression fracture of her vertebra caused pain too intense to be managed at home. Over four days, she used nasal oxygen to help her breathe and received intravenous morphine for pain relief, later graduating to oxycodone tablets.

Even after her discharge, the stress and disruptions of hospitalization — interrupted sleep, weight loss, mild delirium, deconditioning caused by days in bed — left her disoriented and weakened, a vulnerable state some researchers call “post-hospital syndrome.”

They believe it underlies the stubbornly high rate of hospital readmissions among older patients. In 2016, about 18 percent of discharged Medicare beneficiaries returned to the hospital within 30 days, according to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Ms. Lewandowski, for example, was back within three weeks. She had developed a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in her lungs, probably resulting from inactivity. The clot exacerbated her heart failure, causing fluid buildup in her lungs and increased swelling in her legs. She also suffered another compression fracture.

“These hospitalizations can lead to big life changes,” Dr. Dale said. Having grown too frail to live alone, Ms. Lewandowski, now 84, moved in with her daughter.

Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist at Yale University, coined the phrase“post-hospital syndrome” in a New England Journal of Medicine article in 2013.

As Medicare began penalizing hospitals for 30-day readmissions under the Affordable Care Act, he looked at the national data and noticed that most readmissions involved conditions seemingly unrelated to the initial diagnoses.

Patients came in with heart failure or pneumonia, were treated and discharged, then returned with internal bleeding or injuries from a fall.

“Our general approach in a hospital is, all hands on deck to deal with the problem people come in with,” Dr. Krumholz said. “All the other discomforts are seen as a minor inconvenience.”

He has argued instead that discharge marks the start of a 60- to 90-day period of increased vulnerability to a range of other health problems, stemming from the stress of hospitalization itself.

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