Simple to understand, difficult to implement.
One of the tricks of geriatric medicine is to make sensible treatment decisions for the patient you are dealing. Achieving 'sensible' relies on having a clear picture of what that person is like when they are not ill, and not in hospital.
Admission to hospital is a cognitive stress-test, which usually takes place in the context of the physiological stress-test of acute illness. Often, the patient in front of you is far from the person they usually are. Imagining your way to that person in their routine is like foraging through a thick forest, looking for clues. The risk is significant: underestimate their usual level of function and deny them treatment that might be effective because we think they are too frail; overestimate them, and subject them to futile, disorientating care that offers them little utility.
I wrestle with the challenge of knowing my patients. I also wrestle with the concept of a CGA done in an acute crisis. It yields important information, but it yields it too late, and often incompletely. Too often it tells me too little about the recent narrative of that patient's life, the trajectory they have been on, and if offers them too little opportunity to take part in planning their care.
Serving a frail, elderly patient well asks that you involve them in their care, that your practice is influenced by their preferences, their style and their goals. These all vary hugely, and practicing geriatrics only one way means expecting your patients to all fit in with your judgments, preferences and biases. This is a certain way of ensuring that you partially serve most of your patients.
In the world of community geriatrics that I circulate in, we have been building services that aim to manage patients holistically, gently and responsively over time. The cornerstone of our adapted services has been the recognition that almost all of our frail, elderly patients are known well to at least one community service. Over time, these services, and key people within them understand in some detail what that patient deals with, what they are looking to achieve, and what they want to achieve from future care as they become more frail.
We base our conversations about how we help patients through periods of crisis or deterioration on the information provided by the person who knows them best. We develop our input around what we have learned about them from their previous care. It is an approach that requires carefully nurtured team cultures that encourage participation from staff of all roles, and it is an approach that demands significant investment of time, to allow for conversations that often swirl and circulate before you are able to focus in on the key issues that have been identified.
What we have yet to achieve is a system in which every routine assessment contributes to a centrally collated CGA, built up over time, and from every healthcare interaction, to which any relevant health professional can refer when they meet a patient. Some people call these care plans - I like to think of it in the narrative sense.
I am working towards a world in which CGAs are not done, but continuously honed. I look forward to a world in which every interaction with an elderly patient is treated as an opportunity to contribute to care when they get sicker or frailer; in which a crisis is just another chapter in the process of caring for frail, elderly patients. We should be able to leverage the opportunity offered by electronic records to collate this information automatically.
The goal is this: whenever a patient presents with an acute illness or crisis, their admission should be underpinned by an holistic care plan, built up over time, honed at every opportunity and able to support critical decision-making at any time.
My great frustration with acute geriatrics before I moved to the community was that I would spend time helping patients recover from their illnesses, understand how their diseases responded to treatment, and then have nothing to do with them until they became sick again.
After three years working in the community, I am much closer to understanding how holistic geriatric care could work effectively in the modern health system. And it's not as far away as you might think it is.