Families are rapidly becoming unpaid givers of complex care. Using McKeehan & Coulton's systems model, this critique reviews the evolution of the structure and processes of discharge planning programmes. It explores three common assumptions: discharge planning programmes are cost-effective, allow for enhancement of patients' and families' quality of life, and ensure continuity of care between hospital and community. Funds are saved due to decreased lengths of initial hospital admissions and readmission rates. However, the cost of additional hospital and community resources is rarely considered. Little evidence supports the concept that discharge planning directly affects a patient's health status. Patients and families often do not perceive the same level of benefit from discharge planning as do health professionals. Several issues surrounding research methodologies used in the reviewed studies are identified. Of particular concern is the lack of qualitative research into patients' and families' experiences. The critique concludes with an exploration of ethical issues and challenges arising from increased emphasis on cost-effective discharge planning. These include patients' rights, provision of sufficient human, social and financial resources, improved hospital–community communications, and control over hospital-developed but community-implemented programmes.