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Study: Death Rates Higher for Elderly ICU Patients

  • Melinda Smith

An elderly patient in an intensive care unit (ICU)

An elderly patient in an intensive care unit (ICU)

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by the year 2080, one in five Americans will be over age 65. For some time, experts have warned that health care needs of the elderly will be enormous in the years ahead. A study out this week raises concern for older patients who leave a hospital after surviving a critical illness.

American hospitals are doing a better job of keeping elderly patients alive while they're in intensive care. Reports indicate there's a decrease in the risk of in-hospital deaths.

But a study of elderly patients discharged from a hospital's intensive care unit (ICU) shows that almost 40 percent did not survive beyond the research period of three years.

Dr. Hannah Wunsch of Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons says for some patients, the survival rate was even less.

"A lot of these patients are at the highest risk of death and re-hospitalization and problems in the six months following discharge from the hospital," said Dr. Wunsch.

Dr. Wunsch and colleagues studied the survival rate of 35,000 intensive care patients discharged from U.S. hospitals. They were randomly chosen from data of the U.S. government's medical assistance program for the elderly, called Medicare.

The intensive care patients were then compared to elderly patients assigned to other hospital units or in the general Medicare population.

Patients transferred from the ICU to skilled nursing facilities, and who needed a ventilator to breathe, faced the highest risk.

More than one million elderly are survivors of intensive care in the United States. Dr. Wunsch says these grim statistics raise serious questions about future treatment of the critically ill.

"We really need to pay a lot of attention to those patients when they leave the hospital and not just leave them with the idea that they are going to continue their lives as before," added Dr. Wunsch.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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