August 20, 2015
Story by Gregory Kennedy; Photo by Dale MacMillan
After her appendix burst last August, Susan Gokiert underwent emergency surgery and, due to unexpected and ensuing complications, spent three weeks in hospital.
But the 70-year-old Westlock resident turned her experience into a positive for other seniors by joining a new research study aimed at getting elderly patients home sooner, stronger and with fewer complications after emergency general surgery — through the creation of an ‘elder-friendly’ emergency surgical unit at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton.
“They took great care of me and got me up, moving and exercising right away,” says Gokiert. “They did a great job. I was in good condition when I went home.”
Her experience contributed to a new clinical research study called EASE — Elder-Friendly Approaches to the Surgical Environment — a collaboration between Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta, led by Dr. Rachel Khadaroo, a surgeon-scientist, critical care specialist and assistant professor in the Department of Surgery.
“We’re one of the first to transform a surgical unit into an elder-friendly environment,” she says. “We’re looking beyond the operating table for answers to better care. We’re testing new ways of doing pre-operative and post-operative care, ideally to reduce the length of stay in hospital as well as complications such as falls and delirium, which are so detrimental to well-being.”
“I think (the study) is great, because seniors absolutely want to stay healthy,” adds Gokiert, one of 140 study participants enrolled to date. “They want to stay independent, they don’t want to have falls, they want to just be able to have a healthy life. I think this will just get them back to their homes and their lifestyles quicker.”
With Alberta’s elderly population predicted to reach 20 per cent by 2030, a better understanding of their special needs with regards to emergency surgery is needed, says Dr. Adrian Wagg.
“When older people come through the door, they typically have many things wrong with them,” says Dr. Wagg, professor of healthy aging and divisional director of geriatric medicine at the University of Alberta.
“This study is designed to show the importance of collaborative care between surgeons and geriatricians, specialists in internal medicine for older people, and should lead to improved health and quality of life outcomes for those older people needing emergency surgery at the University of Alberta Hospital.”
Surprisingly, advanced age and comorbidities — the simultaneous presence of two or more chronic diseases or conditions in a patient such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, diabetes, thyroid or respiratory disease — do not influence a patient’s recovery nearly as much as their overall frailty and in-hospital complications that may arise.
Being bedridden in hospital can lead to mental and physical decline — up to five per cent of muscle mass is lost daily. A preliminary analysis of EASE participants shows that the elderly, with their frailty, face almost triple the number of complications and double the hospital stay when compared to younger patients who have emergency surgery.
A geriatrician will be part of the team-based care on the new elder-friendly surgical unit, along with nursing and rehabilitation specialists and a social worker well-versed in seniors’ needs. A novel, self-directed, bedside exercise program will get patients up and moving as soon as possible.
“We’re doing a reconditioning program for our patients, so they become stronger quicker, to prevent them from losing a lot of muscle mass,” says Dr. Khadaroo. “And then we’re doing early-discharge planning with our family, social worker, care coordinator and surgical team.”
Patient rooms will also create a more senior-friendly environment, with low-height beds, larger clocks, communication aids and frequent comfort rounds to personally check on well-being.
To gather data and results, the outcomes of patients in the new elder-friendly unit at the University of Alberta Hospital will be compared to those of patients receiving usual care at Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary.
“We want to show that we’re actually having a positive outcome in terms of decreasing complications and death rates,” says Dr. Khadaroo.
The Canadian Journal of Surgery, a publication of the Canadian Medical Association, has also just posted online the latest research by Dr. Khadaroo and her colleagues Dr. Mackenzie C. Lees, Dr. Shaheed Merani and Dr. Keerit Tauh. The paper — Perioperative factors predicting poor outcome in elderly patients following emergency general surgery: a multivariate regression analysis — will be published in its October edition.
The University of Alberta Hospital clinical trial is being funded by $750,000 through The Partnership for Research and Innovation in the Health System (PRIHS), a joint venture between Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions (AIHS) and AHS that aims to improve health outcomes for patients across Alberta. Earlier seed funding came from the MSI Foundation ($50,000) and the University Hospital Foundation ($32,000). Researchers working on this project are also affiliated with the Seniors’ Health Strategic Clinical Network (SCN).
“Elder-friendly care would be impossible without our frontline staff,” says Natalie McMurtry, Executive Director of Medicine & Surgery Adult Inpatient Services for the AHS Edmonton Zone. “Their dedication to our Patient First Strategy — putting patients and their families at the centre of everything we do — is what enables us to advance health care here in Alberta.”