Levels of Care in a Hospital

Did you know that 145.6 million patients go to hospital emergency rooms all over the United States every single year? On top of that whopping statistic, there are general admissions, direct-to-care patients, and other admissions that don’t go through the ER.

Each hospital carefully tracks and monitors each one of these patients, and one of the best ways to do that is by ranking patients via levels of care.

The levels of care in a hospital include four classifications that can help healthcare providers understand the complexity of the case that they’re evaluating. 

To learn more about hospital care and these four levels of care in hospitals, keep reading.

Defining the Levels of Care in a Hospital

Medical professionals divide patients into these 4 levels of care in a hospital:

  1. Primary care
  2. Secondary care
  3. Tertiary care
  4. Quaternary care

As a patient, you may hear that you fall under one of these categories. Understanding what each term refers to can help you determine what your medical team is going to do for you based on your classification. It can also help you navigate the medical system more readily.

1. Primary Care

The primary level of care is also referred to as the essentials category or the group of essential patients. The name ‘primary care’ is quite fitting considering that these cases are those that you may think about when considering your primary care physician.

Primary care patients have generalized symptoms or vague medical concerns that need to be narrowed down to a more specific diagnosis/specialty.

To help you understand these patients more clearly, you may think about all of the times that you’ve been to a primary care office.

You may see a primary care provider when you have the flu or a cold. You may have contracted a bacterial disease, broken a bone, or need to talk about a rash that you’ve noticed on your arm.

All of these cases are mild and acute, meaning that they’ve started within the past six months. 

It’s also notable that your primary care physician is the one that coordinates care between all of your physicians. If you have specialists for different conditions or concerns, your primary care physician is the one who communicates with them and charts information accordingly. They may even track data from wearable technologies and add that into your chart.

Overall, the primary care category describes patients that need generalized care within the hospital. These patients are usually not a cause for immediate or emergent concern. However, it’s still important to make sure that these patients’ symptoms aren’t in line with a more serious disease process.

Giving great care to these patients can lead to better health outcomes and a decrease in hospitalization rates.

2. Secondary Care

Secondary care describes patients who are seeing specialists. As we stated earlier, it’s likely that your primary care provider is the one who referred you to these specialists. You might have been complaining of specific symptoms or needed a consult regarding an existing condition.

A specialist is a healthcare provider that has more expertise in a specific field of medicine. Because they focus on a specific system of the body or a specific disease, they have more expertise in what could be going on. Therefore, they’re more likely to make better recommendations when it comes to your health.

There are plenty of specialists that you could see, including cardiologists, pulmonologists, endocrinologists, and more. Each one of these specialists plays an important role within the healthcare system by seeing patients that need a more focused healthcare plan.

It’s important to note that patients at the secondary care level cannot be best cared for at the primary care level. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be categorized at the secondary level.

This secondary care categorization is an important distinction that hospitals and clinics need to make. These secondary patients require more focused and complete care to accurately and properly assess their ailments. Otherwise, a greater problem could begin forming.

One of the biggest problems that occur at the secondary level of care is the inability to coordinate care. Unfortunately, having multiple physicians can make coordinating care more difficult because there is more input to filter through.

Overall, patients at the secondary level require special management. To ensure that these patients get the care that they need, all of the patient’s physicians need to be able to communicate about the patient’s care and health. Otherwise, some things may get lost in communication. 

3. Tertiary Care

The tertiary classification begins with hospitalization. Once a patient becomes admitted to hospital care, they are at the tertiary level no matter what the reasons for admission are.

Patients who get admitted to the hospital need a higher level of specialty care. They need nurses who are constantly checking in as well as a team of doctors who are caring for them. On top of that, they may need therapists and other medical personnel.

Patients at the tertiary care level need a more focused plan of care that requires input from multiple hospital staff members. Some of these patients may even be at the hospital to have access to more advanced technologies and equipment.

Surgical patients also lie within this category. Patients who are getting common surgical procedures like coronary artery bypass surgeries fall in the tertiary level.

Procedural patients are at the tertiary level, too. This includes patients who are getting hemodialysis or infusions.

It’s notable that many of these patients cannot get adequate care at small, local hospitals. Often, these patients move to larger medical centers that can offer tertiary care procedures.

However, hospital staff cannot forget the importance of primary care at the tertiary level. Each level of care within the hospital builds on previous levels, and primary care is the basis for all other acts of care within a hospital.

To enhance the care of tertiary patients, there should be a primary care provider who is coordinating care and enhancing long-term management. Otherwise, these patients are more likely to keep coming back to the hospital for more specialized care.

4. Quaternary Care

Quaternary care is the most specialized level of care in a hospital. In fact, most hospitals may not even offer quaternary care.

This level of care has the most specialized and the most unusual care plans.

Quaternary care plans may include the following:

  • Experimental surgeries
  • Experimental medications
  • Highly uncommon surgeries
  • Specialized surgeries

Patients that fall within the quaternary care category are those ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ patients that you may hear healthcare providers talking about. These patients have rare conditions or need rare treatments. 

It’s unlikely that you’re going to see many quaternary care patients as a member of hospital staff. However, if you do have one of these patients, it’s important to coordinate care just like we discussed with tertiary patients.

No matter the condition or care plan, primary care is still the basis for all medical treatments and plans. Therefore, a primary care physician should be the one who is coordinating care and ensuring that the patient has a long-term plan that will decrease their likelihood of coming back to the hospital for more specialized care.

Why the Levels of Care in a Hospital Matter

The model denoting the levels of care in a hospital can tell us a lot about patient care and wellbeing. Think about the model as an upside-down triangle or a funnel.

The majority of patients in the healthcare system fall under the primary and secondary categories. However, the patients that you’re seeing will depend on what your role in your clinic or hospital is.

For example, you’re only going to see secondary level patients and above if you’re an immunologist. Likewise, you’re only going to see patients at the tertiary level and above if you’re a hospitalist.

Understanding your scope of practice can help you get a better idea of the patients in your area. In turn, you’ll learn more about how to better care for patients in the long run.

In the end, the goal is to thin out the funnel. In other words, we want patients to be at the beginning stages of the funnel and stay there for as long as possible. 

If we can keep patients at the primary and secondary levels, they’ll have better health outcomes and require fewer medical interventions. Overall, this will improve the health of the local population and take some of the stress off of hospitals in the area.

Remember, primary care is at the base of everything. Without a strong primary care relationship, the patient is likely to keep falling further down the funnel into higher levels of care that require more medical interventions.

Getting the Care That You Need

Understanding the levels of care in a hospital can help you understand what kind of care you need when it’s your turn to get medical attention. Whether you have a cold or a rare disease, you deserve to get the medical interventions that you need to get back on your feet.

If you’re looking to see hospital staff who are going to give you the care you need based on your categorization, look no further than Amazing Healthcare Consultants. Our experts take your level of care into consideration when planning your healthcare journey.

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