October 15, 2009

Falling Down on the Job

It’s not often that a report appears that identifies a problem and at the same time, another report is released that offers a solution to that problem. But that may be what happened this month with the publication of an article describing the frequency of hip fractures and their complications and another article detailing an intervention that reduced the complication rate after hip fracture.

The first study presents data on hip fractures in the U.S. between 1985 and 2005. Previous data indicated that there are about 350,000 hip fractures every year in the U.S., almost all of them in people over 65 and the vast majority in people over age 75. Half of those who break their hip never return to their baseline level of mobility, 20% die within a year, and 25% of those who lived independently before the fracture require permanent nursing home care afterwards. The new report concludes that hip fracture rates and subsequent mortality among people over 65 are declining. But closer inspection of the data shows a different picture.

What the report really shows, as the authors indicate in the discussion section of their paper, is that there were two distinct time periods worthy of analysis. Between 1986 and 1995, the incidence of fractures increased in both men and women (corrected for age) but between 1995 and 2005, the incidence declined steadily. It declined a lot: among women, the incidence fell 25% and among men it fell 19%. But the mortality story is another matter. Looking at death rates at 1 month, 6 months, and at a year after hip fracture, the study found that between 1986 and 1995, mortality fell, but between 1996 and 2005, there was no improvement in mortality whatsoever.

The decline in the rate of hip fractures is good news, though it’s not entirely clear what caused it. The authors point to lifestyle factors, such as greater intake of vitamin D and calcium, along with increased exercise. They also point out that bisphosphonates, medications used to treat osteoporosis, were introduced at just about the same time that hip fracture rates began to fall, but these drugs can account for at most 40% of the reduction in risk.

The lack of improvement in mortality in the recent 10-year period, however, is troubling. Much of it reflects the fact that older people who fracture a hip are frail—and their frailty predisposes them to other medical problems in the following year. But the second article on hip fractures that appeared in a major medical journal this month offers a ray of hope. Reporting on the impact of co-management of hip fracture patients by orthopedists and geriatricians, investigators from the University of Rochester School of Medicine found enormous improvements in outcomes with their model.

Patients cared for in the “Geriatric Fracture Center” in Rochester were older than their counterparts who received standard orthopedic care (mean age 84.7 vs 81.6), they were more likely to have dementia (53% vs 21.5%), and they were much more likely to come from nursing homes and assisted living facilities (60.6% vs 12.2%). Despite all these differences, the co-managed patients fared far better. They went to the operating room much more quickly (in an average of 24.1 hours vs 37.4 hours), which has been shown to lead to better results. They stayed in the hospital less long (4.6 days on average vs 8.3 days) and they had fewer complications (30.6% vs 46.3%). In particular, they were less likely to develop delirium (acute confusion), infection, and blood clots, all of which predispose to early death.

The finding that “co-managed” patients did better than those cared for exclusively by orthopedists does not necessarily translate into improved survival rates. Some of the long-term mortality is unrelated to the hip fracture and simply reflects the reality that people who break a hip tend to be old and sick and that people who are old and sick die. But the component of the mortality from hip fractures that is amenable to intervention probably involves the post-operative management of patients. It is precisely those nasty complications of surgery that, over time, cause death. Finding a way to take care of individuals with hip fractures that decreases their risk of complications is an excellent strategy for preventing death.

Is the “Comanaged Geriatric Fracture Center” really the answer? It may be. The Rochester study was a retrospective cohort analysis, so it is possible that the findings reflect undetected differences between the patients or other differences in the institutions where care was provided. A randomized trial, in which some patients receive one form of care and others, chosen randomly, get the other type of care, would demonstrate decisively whether and how much co-management helps. But joint care by orthopedists and geriatricians is in widespread use in other countries such as Australia and New Zealand, with good results. And similar but less potent strategies have been used in the U.S., such as the use of geriatric consultation for patients on the orthopedic service. When this multidisciplinary approach was instituted at Oregon Health Sciences University and at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, fewer complications, decreased length of stay, and earlier surgery were all observed. These systematic ways to assure improved care for older people with hip fractures can be instituted now. There’s pretty compelling evidence that they work and cost calculations suggest they save money, too. If we don’t start introducing this model into practice, we’re falling down on the job.

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