Daniel Sommer is a Foundation Year 2 Doctor at Charing Cross Hospital in London. He is an aspiring Geriatrician. He tweets at @danielf90
Hello everyone, my name is Dan and I’m a junior doctor and an aspiring geriatrician (read my last blog post here). My new job is working as part of my hospital’s OPAL (Older Peoples’ Assessment & Liaison) team and I absolutely love it. We run a rapid access day clinic that GPs refer into and we review every patient over the age of 70 who is on the acute medicine unit routinely (usually after the consultant post-take ward round but sometimes we’re asked to intervene earlier). I felt compelled to write something about admission avoidance in the elderly because I hear so much about it in the media and my working experience does not correlate with what I read.
Patient MS is 82 and has dementia. She had a recent long stay in hospital following a pneumonia requiring prolonged rehabilitation and was discharged with a large package of care from social services. On discharge it was decided that if this package of care didn’t work then the patient was to be placed in a residential home from the community. Two days after discharge the patient was brought to A&E because she was found on the floor having fallen. The ED registrar refers to the medics as a “failed discharge” (a term I really dislike – but that’s for another time) and was “eye-balled” quickly by the medical registrar who determined that the package of care must not be working. The OPAL team was called to see if we could arrange an emergency residential home placement to “avoid an inappropriate admission” on a Friday afternoon. We work really hard and within 2 hours we had managed to convince the powers that be to find an emergency community bed that the patient could be transferred to. We approach the medical team with glee that we managed managed to achieve the impossible but we were greeted with sheepish faces. “Oh….yeah…well, we looked at the bloods and….”. The patient had a severe acute kidney injury and a huge inflammatory response.
Patient MS was initially denied a thorough acute assessment by an experienced medical team who thought they were doing the right thing by pushing this lady very quickly out of hospital “for her own good”. This patient presented with a classic geriatric syndrome that we know can represent all sorts of acute medical problems.
Admission avoidance is a well-meaning idea (or political movement) that is designed to keep older people out of hospital because hospital is “bad” for them. Every new service for older people that is being commissioned seems to need to meet a primary outcome of “fewer admission of older people into hospital” otherwise it is a failure. I think this is a misguided aim and a terrible primary outcome measure. Carers, patients and social workers do not have medical degrees. If they are concerned that somebody is acutely unwell, they are right to send the patient to hospital to be thoroughly assessed, whether the patient is 20, 50 or 80 (or 90). It is my belief that we will never reduce the number of older people attending hospital and nor should we. It is ageist and a complete travesty to deny any section of society access to the health service.
Patient MS actually made it to hospital (jumping through all those pesky admission avoidance hoops and hurdles) and still she was initially let down by the system. So what is the solution? Well firstly, we need more geriatricians reviewing patients at or near the front door (either in the ED, a specialist acute frailty unit or the acute medicine unit) who will triage appropriately. Secondly, doctors need more education about classic geriatric syndromes (i.e. that it’s not “atypical” for an older person who is septic to present afebrile with a fall) and how to assess & manage them. Thirdly, we need to change our outcome measures. In my (humble and naïve) opinion, the aim should not be to stop older people coming to hospital it should be about supporting early and appropriate discharge.
A virtual ward is not a failure if their patients end up in a real medical ward. It is a failure if they can’t be supported out of hospital as soon as they are medically fit to leave. Please, let’s focus on giving the frail elderly the best of both worlds – appropriate acute care in hospital when necessary and supported independence in the community at all other times.