Public Release: 

New Progam Aims To Change Health Care For The Elderly

Henry Ford Health System

DETROIT -- An innovative approach to providing health care to the elderly is being put to the test at Henry Ford Health System.

Recognizing that providing health care for the elderly is entirely different from providing care to younger people, health care workers at Henry Ford Health System and University Hospitals Health System in Cleveland are learning ways to treat older patients.

The Great Lakes Geriatric Interdisciplinary Team Training project brings together health care workers and their patients into teams. By working together, rather than alone, the patient receives treatment and assistance for physical, social and economic needs.

"Senior citizens are our fastest growing population," said Nancy Whitelaw, Ph.D., associate director of the HFHS Center for Health System Studies, and co-director of the project. "Yet their needs are not being met in the best way. Too often, we have too many people directing different aspects of their health and not working in a coordinated fashion."

The team works with the patients to identify how disease affects them and identifies ways to prevent the disease from worsening. For instance:

  • In a typical medical setting, a physician may order a patient to avoid walking up steps after surgery and leave it at that. In the team approach, the social worker would know the patient lives in a second floor apartment and would work with the nurse and physician to find solutions to the problem;
  • The teams are trained to identify patients who cannot manage their own care and arranges for a support system to help them.

"The band-aid approach we apply in traditional medicine just doesn't work for the elderly," Whitelaw said. "A lot of older Americans are concerned about how to stay in their homes and out of nursing homes.

"That's not really a medical problem, but if they are alone in their home and fall, then it becomes one. Increasingly, phsyicians treating the elderly are asked to help with the social issues that may impact the patient's health. Unfortunately, that's just not taught in med school."

The goals of the new approach is to provide high quality health care and still control costs, she said. By keeping patients at home longer or helping them follow their medical care better reduces the need for additional complex treatment or solutions.

"Care of older adults is very challenging -- they have complex, chronic needs," said Mary Beth Tupper, M.D., medical director of the project. "Many of the impediments to them having a good quality of life are social and financial. But it's those social and financial problems that can exacerbate medical problems."

Teams now are being trained at four Henry Ford locations. During the next several months, they will be working with the health care providers, showing them new ways to manage their older patients' health without adding any human or economic burdens.

The project, which is one of only eight nationally, is funded by a $1.2 million grant from the John A. Hartford Foundation and a $240,000 grant from the Cleveland Foundation. More than 600 health care practitioners in Detroit and Cleveland will be trained under the program.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: If you would like to sit in on a team meeting and see how the new program works, contact Pamela Landis at (313) 874-6419.

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