Hospital systems have tried sending nurses, medics and even firefighters to the homes of recently discharged patients to help them recover and follow whatever medical and prescription advice they received.

So it should be little surprise that one system, HealthPartners, is now sending pharmacists as well — with promising results.

The operator of Regions Hospital in St. Paul started a pilot study in 2014 that sent pharmacists to review medications for serious and chronically ill patients who were homebound — with a goal of helping them avoid returns to the hospital.

Of 31 patients who received home visits, two were readmitted to hospitals within 30 days of their discharges, the study found. While the sample size was small, the re-hospitalization rate of 6 percent was better than the rate of 17 percent for comparable patients who did not receive pharmacist visits.

“Pharmacists are an important part of the care team in supporting patients with chronic illnesses, which can also help patients avoid an unnecessary hospital visit,” said Rick Bruzek, HealthPartners vice president of pharmacy services.

Reducing readmissions within 30 days of discharge has been a priority for hospitals, nationally and in Minnesota. Research has shown that better discharge planning can prevent these costly and often unnecessary repeat visits. Medicare also is in its fourth year of issuing penalties to hospitals with excessive readmission rates.

Regions avoided a readmission penalty in 2015 but is one of 39 Minnesota hospitals to be assessed one for 2016, though it is a minuscule .01 percent of its Medicare revenues for patient stays. Hospitals in Hastings, Alexandria, Owatonna, Fridley and Cambridge were penalized more than 1 percent based on their readmissions.

Regions’ success with its free, voluntary pharmacist visits has resulted in an expansion of the program; Ramsey County paramedics can now recommend the visits to heart failure patients who don’t qualify for home care services.