Elderly patients are different. They are more sensitive to some drugs, less to others, have unusual presentations of common conditions, and otherwise are not that easy to diagnose and treat when the doctor is used to dealing with younger patients.
Bemoaning the lack of required geriatric training in medical schools, geriatrician Dr. Rosanne Leipzig gave this example in a recent op-ed piece she wrote in the New York Times:
Often even experienced doctors are unaware that 80-year-olds are not the same as 50-year-olds. Pneumonia in a 50-year-old causes fever, cough and difficulty breathing; an 80-year-old with the same illness may have none of these symptoms, but just seem “not herself” – confused and unsteady, unable to get out of bed.
She may end up in a hospital, where a doctor prescribes a dose of antibiotic that would be right for a woman in her 50s, but is twice as much as an 80-year-old patient should get, and so she develops kidney failure, and grows weaker and more confused. In her confusion, she pulls the tube from her arm and the catheter from her bladder.
Instead of re-evaluating whether the tubes are needed, her doctor then asks the nurses to tie her arms to the bed so she won’t hurt herself. This only increases her agitation and keeps her bed-bound, causing her to lose muscle and bone mass. Eventually, she recovers from the pneumonia and her mind is clearer, so she’s considered ready for discharge – but she is no longer the woman she was before her illness. She’s more frail, and needs help with walking, bathing and daily chores.
This shouldn’t happen.
Dr. Leipzig co-authored an article for medical educators listing 26 areas of competency in treating elderly patients that medical students should have to demonstrate before getting out of school; the list is nicknamed the “Don’t Kill Granny” list.
For the rest of us, the takeaway lesson is that when we’re advocating for an elderly relative with a new doctor, we need to find out if the doctor has deep experience in treating elderly folks, and if not, ask for a second opinion from a doctor who does. This can make a huge difference in quality of medical care — and quality of health for our relatives’ twilight years.
More tips on being a patient advocate can be found in Patrick Malone’s new book, “The Life You Save.”