More than 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease or dementia, and they tend to be hospitalized at a greater rate than others in their age group. According to a recent study, however, it appears that doctors and caregivers should give some serious thought to avoiding hospitalizations unless they are completely necessary. Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard, and Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston have found that patients with Alzheimer's disease who are hospitalized are significantly more likely to end up in a nursing home or even die within a year of that hospital stay than those who are not.
Whether this correlation is caused by medical malpractice is not yet clear. Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Washington found that seniors who have dementia are more likely than others in their peer group to need hospitalization. Even more alarming, they are more likely than other seniors to be hospitalized for preventable conditions such as dehydration, infections, poorly managed chronic conditions or worsening heart failure.
According to the new study, Alzheimer's and dementia patients as a group tend to deteriorate during and after hospital stays. Even those who are relatively high-functioning at home, however, may enter a state of delirium during their stay -- a state of higher confusion and agitation than ordinary. Those patients who suffered an episode of delirium while in the hospital were even more likely to decline.
It is not clear why delirium occurs in some patients, but it occurred in about 25 percent of those in the study who were hospitalized. Medical professionals agree that hospitalization can be very stressful for patients with dementia.
While no clear evidence of medical malpractice was demonstrated in the study, it may be that some hospital staff are not properly trained to deal with the issues surrounding Alzheimer's and dementia patients. The unfamiliar environment is disorienting, and the illness or injury causing the hospitalization itself may make it more difficult for these patients.
If you have a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer's or dementia, the best thing may be to carefully monitor their symptoms, which may be vague, and seek treatment early to avoid hospitalization. If it cannot be avoided, ask the hospital to help by providing a private room to minimize disorientation and have a family member stay with the patient to reduce anxiety.
Source: Star Tribune, "HEALTHBEAT: Study finds often preventable hospital stays are risky for Alzheimer's patients," Lauran NeerGaard, June 18, 2012