A whopping 86 million Americans are family caregivers for an adult with significant health problems, according to a new report. Untrained, unpaid, and unlicensed, they take care of some of the sickest patients in the U.S.
Just under half of these caregivers provide complex medical care: this is a level of care that only doctors or nurses would be allowed to administer if the patient were in a hospital or nursing home. They supervise their family member’s medications, drugs that may have side effects so severe that patients taking them need to be hospitalized. They apply dressings to wounds, a procedure that is sometimes so painful that the patient has to take narcotic pain medicines beforehand. A minority even give intravenous medication or use equipment such as dialysis machines or ventilators that are customarily operated by specially trained professionals.
In the last three years, the percent of Americans serving as caregivers to an adult with health issues has gone from 27% to 36%, presumably related to the growth of the elderly population, the recession (which forced families to take on caregiving responsibilities rather than hiring outsiders), and the rise of chronic illness (fully 75% of older adults have at least one chronic disease such as diabetes or emphysema). The focus of the new survey is how these caregivers get the training they need to do their jobs.
The answer is both unsurprising and disturbing. When caregivers seek help, they rely heavily on a web search.
Caregivers often do consult a health professional—79% of them report they spoke to a clinician about their concerns. But they report wanting and needing much more guidance in carrying out their daily responsibilities. They say they use the internet to learn how to monitor drugs and how to diagnose and treat disease. What they uncover on the web ranges from sophisticated, up-to-date medical information to downright disinformation. Fortunately, a professional agrees with their diagnosis 41% of the time, according to the study. In the majority of cases, a clinician disagrees with the caregiver’s web-based diagnosis (18%) or the caregiver never seeks the advice of a clinician (35%).
It is time to recognize family caregivers as members of the health care team and make sure they get the right kind of training to do their job, just like their professional colleagues. To date, “caregiver support” has largely been psychosocial, intended to ease the stress that comes from taking care of a chronically ill relative an average of 20 hours a week. “Support” for the sophisticated role that caregivers often play, a role that is the key to optimizing medical treatment and minimizing hospitalizations, will require new resources. We need to be creative about designing these materials, recognizing that 60% of all caregivers have another job, usually full time. We will need to design videos and massive on-line courses (MOOCs) as well as how-to guides. The physicians who care for the frailest and sickest patients should take the lead: it’s what their patients need.