Geriatrics is the medical specialty serving patients 65 and older. Usually multidisciplinary, the geriatric team may consist of primary care providers specializing in geriatrics, diabetes educators, psychologists, medical social workers, pharmacists, and support staff. The goal is to keep patients functional at their highest level throughout their elder years. This might mean the difference between a patient living independently, semi-independently, or in a skilled nursing facility.

Let’s say your next patient is a 75-year-old female admitted to the ER for confusion. Vitals are HR 98, BP 102/60, RR 20, SpO2 96, T 98 oral. The patient arrives by ambulance from home. Her clothing is wet with foul smelling urine. She is not oriented to person or place. Her affect is flat. Tenting is elicited on her hands. Skin is warm. You note she has lately been to the ER several times for falls and failure to thrive.

What to do for your patient? After the work up, the patient is diagnosed with a UTI and dehydration. Confusion is often seen in the elderly as the first sign of a UTI. Of course the foul smelling urine and new incontinence were the giveaway. This patient is going to need more than a course of antibiotics and fluid. Although she lives with family, the recent visits to the ER make it clear that the family is overwhelmed. A quick conversation with the daughter confirms this fact. You suggest a geriatric consult to the ER provider and she agrees.

Some inclusionary factors for a geriatric referral are age 65 and older, increased utilization of services, changing/increasing needs, decreased functioning, confusion or dementia, failure to thrive/weight loss, falls, and age related health problems. Our ER patient meets several of these criteria. If the patient has a PCP, coordination with that provider would be necessary. Geriatrics will often do a consult to see if the patient is the right fit. It looks like our patient and her family could use the services of a multidisciplinary team.

Active addiction/alcoholism, recent suicide attempt, acute psychosis, or untreated mental health issues would require different referrals. Substance abuse problems, active mental health issues, or suicide attempts would need to be addressed by addiction services and/or mental health services and the patient stabilized before geriatrics could assess age related changes to memory or dementia. These issues would cloud the clinical picture and make diagnosis of cognitive impairment impossible.

The geriatric primary care provider is part of an interdisciplinary team. Because of this, our patient will have access to a range of services that are can be outside of the ability of the primary care provider to manage. Having everyone under the same roof, steps away, using the same electronic record system, allows for an integration of care that would be impossible using outside specialists. Our patient will get a referral from the ER after the ER provider consults with the patient’s primary doctor if she has one.

The patient will be scheduled for a geriatric consult as soon as her condition has stabilized.

Meet the Geriatric Team

Dr. Nirmala Gopalan, MD, is the site manager for the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Downtown Geriatric Clinic in San Jose, CA.

“On the patient’s initial visit, I’m looking for inclusionary factors. Does this patient need us? There are a lot of elderly patients whose health care needs are well met by their PCP. The ideal patient to come aboard our service meets the inclusionary factors, has a desire to onboard to our services, and is looking for quality of life, not just disease care.”

Ginny Estupian, PhD, is the geriatric clinic psychologist at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center and works closely with Dr. Gopalan. “My role on the team can be divided into two parts; providing individual therapy and neuropsychological evaluations.”

“When I conduct individual therapy, I focus on reducing troublesome mood symptoms such as depression and anxiety. I may focus on helping the patient cope with chronic health conditions that exacerbate their mood such as COPD, chronic pain, diabetes, and cognitive changes. I help the client understand the relationship between the sleep, pain, mood triad, and we focus on improving one or more of those areas. Mood symptoms can improve by learning coping skills, engaging in age-appropriate exercise, or simply processing how they feel about their overall health.”

“The second part of my role is conducting neuropsychological evaluations. I assess for changes in cognition that may occur due to Alzheimer’s disease, vascular disease, or other age-related conditions. Findings from neuropsychological testing are discussed with the multidisciplinary team, then discussed with the patient and family in order to coordinate ongoing care that meets the specific needs of each client.”

Carol Lee, PharmD, is a pharmacist for Santa Clara Valley Geriatrics Clinic. “The first thing I do with the new patient is go over the medication. I’m looking for appropriateness, contraindications, drug interactions, compliance…”

“I look at the patient in terms of the 5 Ms of geriatrics: Mind, Mobility, Medications, Multi-complexity, and Matters Most. Does the patient have dementia, cognitive decline, delirium, or depression? Can the patient tell me why he or she is on this medication? Is the patient an active participant in care or is someone else managing it? Age is just a number. Patients have a wide variability in ability. We don’t prejudge, we assess.”

“Can the patient navigate the pharmacy system? Are they having difficulty with refills or medication timing? Our pharmacy can set up automatic refills, home delivery, blister packs, and other services to assist our patients.”

“Another thing I asses for our patient population is herbal supplements. I educate them on the pros and cons of taking supplements and over the counter medications. The patient needs to weigh if they are getting benefit or detriment from them. I go over each one with them, looking for interactions.”

“Finally, polypharmacy has to be addressed. Some patients have been to many doctors over the years or have seen multiple specialties and they can have a lot of medication burden. Having the patient’s care totally within our system, on the same electronic charting system, and doing a medication reconciliation with each visit helps me to drill down to exactly what the patient is taking, what we can toss, and what we can keep. The patient has health goals, that’s what ‘matters most.’ The proper medicine, and nothing extra, is my job with the geriatric patient.”

Danette Flippin, MSW, MSG, also at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Geriatric Clinic, looks at not just the whole patient, but at the patient’s support system.

“When assessing the new patient I always think in terms of biopsychosocial and spiritual assessment. Starting with the patient, I ask what is this patient’s level of functioning in the world? What are the physical, cognitive, emotional, and psychological abilities that allow this patient to address needs or to cope with challenges? What deficits are preventing healthy coping or access to health care, or engagement with community support?

“Simultaneously, as a medical social worker, I am looking at the patient’s environment and support systems such as family, friends, social/senior networks, church communities, etc. What is important to this person as they navigate the later stages of their life cycle, place meaning and address the existential questions and factors in their lives?

“When we look at an older adult, we are assessing the well-being of the caregiver as well. The patient and family centered approach is key to assessing, identifying problems, and integrating helpful, successful interventions. When all the information is in place I form a plan on how best to serve this person, not this person’s diseases.”

As we each progress through the stages of life, it’s good to know there are resources available. Not every elder patient needs the services of a geriatric specialty clinic, but the ones that do definitely get value. Don’t forget to evaluate your geriatric patients for specialized care.

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