Last week’s British Medical Journal draws attention to the growing literature confirming that the intensive care unit (ICU) is a perilous environment for frail older people. A position piece written by an intensivist, a geriatrician, a professor of critical care, and a “patient and public representative,” argues there is a mismatch between the supply and demand for intensive care and that increased public awareness of what admission to the ICU does—and does not—mean for patients and their families is the key to addressing the problem.
Leaving aside whether the proposed solution, public education, has the slightest chance of working, I decided to have a look at the research papers on which the position piece was based. The first article, from Scotland and published in Critical Care Medicine, deals with “Health-Related Quality of Life After ICU.” The results, in a nutshell, are that what determined how well people did after discharge from the ICU in terms of both mental and physical functioning was affected far more by how well they functioned before they got sick than how sick they were when hospitalized.
The second article, based on patients in 311 ICUs in 21 European countries published in Intensive Care Medicine, found that among people over age 80, the greater the degree of frailty, the higher the 30-day mortality. In patients who, prior to admission, were not frail the 30-day survival was 76 percent; in the “pre-frail” group it was 71 percent, but in the frail group, it was 59 percent.
The importance of these studies is not so much the numbers they report—although I thought that a 30-day survival rate of 59 percent in frail octogenarians was not bad—as their emphasis on physical functioning. We in the U.S. continue to pay little attention to frailty. The Europeans, evidently, do pay attention to frailty. In part, the reason for the difference is that Europeans actually assess frailty while Americans, to a large extent, do not. We are still fighting over how best to measure and record it. The final takeaway from these articles is that the specific scale the Europeans use is so easy to use that the researchers did not have to teach physicians, patients, or families how to use it: it’s self-explanatory.
Forget about American exceptionalism. Let’s adopt the tool in use in the much of the rest of the developed world.