Recently, Dr. Leonore Buckley published a commentary in JAMA on witnessing her brother’s hospitalization and subsequent decline. As a physician and caregiver, she provided a unique perspective on the disjointed, often alienating process of being a hospitalized patient in contemporary medicine.
Most physicians or nurses who have recently worked on an inpatient unit have witnessed this phenomenon. Dr. Buckley outlines some of the challenges in the care of her brother, Tom:
- Unclear responsibility. It was unclear to Dr. Buckley who was ultimately responsible for Tom’s care – a single point person whom she could approach with questions. She states: “the medical teams came and went with rotating attendings we never really got to know.”
- Iatrogenesis. Tom developed a secondary infection after receiving antibiotics, anasarca after receiving intravenous fluids, and delirium after being in an unfamiliar environment for several days. Older patients are particularly prone to such adverse consequences of hospitalization; for example by one estimate, up to one in three experience delirium.
- Immobility. Physical therapy was available only sporadically, and Tom deteriorated in part due to lack of movement. This is all too common in hospitals, with therapists often unavailable on weekends, and stretched thin during the weekday.
- Lack of patient-centeredness. Dr. Buckley reports that she felt like she “was standing in front of an express train of technology” that couldn’t be stopped. As one example – Tom went to dialysis in a windowless room from 4-8 PM most evenings, therefore missing dinner. Exhausted afterwards, he refused to eat. Other details as well – the continuous alarms that disrupt sleep, the lack of privacy – are all too familiar.
Dr. Buckley does credit the physicians and nurses with being well-trained and providing well-intentioned care. And in my opinion, individual clinicians don’t deserve blame for this – the problem is one of a healthcare system built for maximum efficiency that, somewhere through the process of adapting quality metrics, discharges before noon, and the latest in advanced monitoring technology, lost sight of what matters most – an individual person, sick and often bewildered, who needs other human beings to help them recover.
This is a complex problem without a single solution, but there is progress on many fronts. For example, the John A. Hartford Foundation has identified “age-friendly health systems” as a priority area and is working with organizations to achieve several aims, including aligning care with older patients’ specific health goals, implementing delirium prevention strategies, and ensuring mobilization on a daily basis. Medical centers such as Johns Hopkins are piloting rehabilitation programs in critically ill patients, mobilizing them early in their disease course to avoid functional decline.
Such efforts are laudable. And, as the number of Americans age ≥85 is expected to triple over the next three decades, they are essential to a future healthcare system that puts patients first.
By: John Dodson, MD, MPH