Aging Gracefully Part 4: Comprehensive Primary Care for the Elderly

March 25, 2015
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Comprehensive primary care is essential to good health, wellness and needed medical care during our elder years. It is critical to Aging Gracefully.

In the last fewposts I wrote that Aging Gracefully physically requires attention to lifestyle/behaviors to assure good nutrition, plenty of exercise, reduced stress, no tobacco and – for preserving cognitive function – intellectual challenge and social engagement. That is what each of us needs to attend to but we also need a good primary care physician (PCP) to assist us on our journey. That PCP needs to have adequate time to listen and listen fully.
The Erickson Living retirement communities have developed an approach that appears to work well for its residents. Let me use it as an example. The fundamental concept is to assure that everyone has comprehensive primary care. The Erickson leadership learned that healthcare was of paramount importance to their residents. A strong program would be good unto itself but also a strong marketing attraction. After substantial study and trial and error they set the resident/patient number per doctor at a remarkably low 400 for their in-house salaried PCPs. They found that this 400:1 ratio was the ideal number of elderly geriatric residents per doctor in order to assure the quality, humanistic and integrative approach to care desired. (For comparison, the usual patient to PCP ratio is about 3000:1.) They have clearly demonstrated that this approach to primary care with a low number of patients per doctor (and a team that functions akin to a medical home) not only gives superior care but that it results in much reduced total costs of health care overall. 
According to the medical director, Matthew Narrett, MD, residents can have same or next day appointments for as long as needed, they are offered extensive preventive care (“It is never too late to prevent,”) the PCPs are well versed in gerontology issues  and there is a strong commitment to listening. Some of the results of this approach: Chronic illnesses can be managed usually quite successfully without the need for referral to specialists but, when needed, specialists are readily available (many conduct office hours on site on a rotating basis eliminating the need to travel to a distant office). Hospital admissions are down absolutely and markedly so in comparison to equivalent groups of elderly individuals. The length of stay in the hospital for those who must be admitted is lower and the 30 day unanticipated readmission rate has consistently been below 11% (the national rate is about 20%plus) despite the average age of their residents being about 82, i.e., one would expect their average rate to be higher than the national rate for Medicare-covered individuals overall. Dr Narrett reported that resident satisfaction was very high. I confirmed that when I was at the Charlestown community to give a talk organized by residents. With no staff present, I asked the 90 or so attendees their impression of the healthcare program. I received only positive accolades.
At the Charlestown and Riderwood communities where I have toured (and other locations) the onsite clinic includes not only the PCPs, but one or more nurse practitioners, a podiatrist, and a suite for a visiting dentist, for an optometrist and for an audiologist. The podiatrist is full time (at the larger communities) but the others are there commensurate with the need. Various outside medical and surgical specialists (e.g., cardiology, gastroenterology, dermatology, orthopedics, etc.) offer office hours on site on a scheduled basis. The clinic has an on-site nurse to coordinate special needs such as preparing for surgery, returning to the community from the hospital, transferring to assisted living, arranging in-home special needs care, etc.
A Medicare Advantage Plan is also offered by Erickson Living to residents of their group of 18 continuing care retirement communities. In the Erickson plans (administered through United Healthcare) one can choose the on-site PCPs or continue with one’s own PCP, can access a wide range of specialists when necessary, can use most any hospital, can be driven to most off-site doctors’ offices at no cost, etc. Unlike Traditional Medicare where one must spend three days in the hospital in order to be eligible for Medicare to pay for the first 100 days of residential skilled nursing care,  this Advantage plan waives the required three day stay. In other words, if the resident would benefit, the doctor can make the decision and can arrange immediate referral to their on campus site. This of course eliminates a very costly and potentially hazardous hospitalization. There is also an on-site benefits specialist to assist residents with their questions. The most common plan costs substantially less than one might pay for both Medigap and Part D policies yet it includes greater benefits (e.g., basic dental) with few co-pays and no deductibles. 
Older individuals perhaps even more than others need comprehensive primary care. It is a critical aspect of Aging Gracefully. Unfortunately, most older people do not have the benefit of a PCP who can spend the time they need.
My takeaway from the Erickson model is that when the PCPs are allotted the needed time and can listen and think, the care is excellent, satisfaction is strong and the total costs come down substantially. It also means that the PCP can get back to relationship medicine where trust builds and healing is possible.
I am not advocating for Erickson Living or that you move to a retirement community but my recommendation is definitely that you seek out a PCP who can and will offer the time you need to assure good healthcare so that you can Age Gracefully.
Disclaimer: I have no financial relationship with Erickson Living. It is used solely as an example to demonstrate the utility and value of a PCP (along with a well-functioning team) who can offer each patient the time necessary for comprehensive primary care.

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