Healthcare News & Insights

Improving elderly patients’ outcomes from hospital stays

Elderly patients often have a difficult time when they’re admitted to the hospital. Even those who initially only have a minor problem are more prone to experiencing a steep decline in health, and that can set the stage for all sorts of issues contributing to their eventual readmission – or death. 

An article in NPRGettyImages-120672248 (taken from Kaiser Health News) discusses many of the risks older patients face in the hospital.

Seniors 65 and older typically have a harder time bouncing back after a hospital stay than younger patients for several reasons. They’re more susceptible to contracting infections while hospitalized, and they’re also at high risk of serious injury from falls.

Even if elderly patients don’t suffer physical consequences from a hospital stay, their mental health can deteriorate rapidly.

Late-night vital sign checks and noisy hospital equipment often contributes to sleep disturbances. A lack of rest makes seniors more likely to develop delirium or a similar condition known as “sundowning,” where older patients start wandering the halls and behaving erratically during the late evening and early morning hours.

Both physical and mental impairments can be exacerbated during a hospital stay, and they have a significant impact on older people’s decision-making skills and their ability to function independently once they leave the hospital.

Units for seniors

While hospitals haven’t traditionally focused on the needs of senior patients, some have gone out of their way to create an environment specifically for the elderly. The NPR article gives San Francisco General Hospital’s Acute Care for Elders ward as an example.

Opened in 2007, the unit was designed with the needs of older patients in mind. Staff members are trained in geriatrics, and their goal is to focus on the best ways to help patients live independently once they leave the hospital.

Patients in the Acute Care for Elders ward receive memory tests to check for any signs of dementia or delirium. They’re also evaluated on how well they can walk and care for themselves, and they’re encouraged to do both throughout their stay.

Rather than keep patients bedridden, staffers get them up and out of bed on a regular basis, including for meals in a communal dining area with other patients, so they can maintain a sense of independence and normalcy.

There are only around 200 of these units in hospitals across the country right now. But as more focus is being placed on the quality of care given to Medicare patients, most of whom are elderly, this number may increase.

Focus on elder care

Research (including a study in Health Affairs) shows that hospital units designed specifically for elderly people reduce the occurrence of complications and disabilities caused by hospital stays. They also reduce patients’ length of stay, and they lower the chance that a patient will be placed in a nursing home shortly after discharge.

Not every hospital has the resources at its disposal to create a special ward just for elderly patients. But all hospitals can make more of an effort to evaluate older patients for signs of delirium or dementia, prevent falls and reduce nighttime disturbances, all of which can make a big difference in their recovery.

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