Post-acute care rejection shown as a letter with a red rejection stamp.

Referrals for post-acute services, especially home care, are growing, but staffing shortages and higher-acuity patients at discharge are making it tougher for hospitals to connect patients with care after their stays, according to a report released Tuesday by healthcare technology firm WellSky.

The volume of post-acute referrals has risen higher than pre-pandemic levels. And since December 2022, home health referrals have increased by 11%. At the same time, the rejection rate for home health agencies has risen by 40% since 2022, the report found. 

“What happens in the post-acute setting has a direct impact on the hospital setting and vice versa,” said Lissy Hu, president of connected networks at Wellsky, in a statement. “Improving patient outcomes requires a holistic cross-continuum approach.”

Higher referral rates reflect a growing need for post-acute services. But, according to the report, patients are 6% more acute at hospital discharge than they were in 2019, which makes it more difficult to coordinate post-acute care. As a result, hospitals have seen average lengths of stay increase by 12%.

The graying of the United States population will continue to play a role in higher-acuity rates. By 2030, WellSky predicts that there will be more than 70 million baby boomers aged 65 or older. These people have a higher likelihood of having hypertension, arthritis and diabetes, which may also contribute to higher acuity rates.

To keep up with growing demand, post-acute care providers must be better-staffed. WellSky reports that staffing challenges contribute to lower quality of care, prolonged wait times and overall lower satisfaction among patients. Research has revealed that many home care agencies have been forced to turn away care as a result of having a lack of caregivers, increasing the rate of referral rejections.

As a result of its findings, WellSky recommends “collaboration between providers across the continuum of care.” Adaptation to a changing healthcare environment, the report stated, will be key to improving both acute and post-acute services.

Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that home health rejection rates have increased by 40% since 2022.