By Linda Carroll

(Reuters Health) – As America’s population ages, experts are exploring how best to keep older people with multiple chronic illnesses healthy. A new study suggests that coordination between physicians may be key.

In a reanalysis of 25 earlier studies including 12,579 patients, researchers found that coordination of care for older adults with multiple medical conditions resulted in improved health. Patients in the study had combinations of disorders such as heart failure and obstructive lung disease, arthritis and depression, diabetes and depression, or diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Currently more than 62 percent of older Americans have multiple chronic conditions, the researchers noted in CMAJ. And many of those seniors receive care from a variety of specialists who don’t communicate with one another.

“To address the challenges faced by our rapidly aging population, we need to focus on a more patient-oriented and holistic strategy that targets management of patients with common disease combinations, such as diabetes and depression, rather than treating one disease at a time,” said study leader Monika Kastner, a health services researcher at the University of Toronto, Canada, and research chair at North York General Hospital.

Care coordination, Kastner explained in an email, can be defined as efforts by health care professionals to facilitate and coordinate appropriate, timely and efficient delivery of health care services for a patient.

The average age in the studies was 67. One area where coordination made a big difference was in patients who had a chronic physical condition along with depression. For example, patients with both depression and diabetes had improvements in both depressive symptoms and blood sugar levels when they got coordinated care.

The new article “takes us in the right direction,” said Michael Wolf, associate vice chair of research in the department of medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

Wolf has personal experience with a problem that’s common when care is fragmented: the possibility that doctors will provide a patient with overlapping medications.

“My sister at one point was on 24 medications,” he said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t till she was hospitalized that a surgeon pointed out that she was taking multiple medications to treat the same thing. They had been prescribed by different people. When she left the hospital, the number had been reduced to six or seven.”

Presently, however, there is no template to show health care providers how to accomplish coordinated care with the system set up the way it is, Wolf pointed out.

There are a number of reasons why patients rarely get coordinated care, said Dr. Alicia Arbaje, director of translational care research in the division of geriatric medicine and gerontology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Top on the list is the way practitioners are reimbursed, Arbaje said by phone. And beyond that, “we haven’t caught up in our training of physicians to learn how to work with other providers or even as a team,” she added. “Also, we don’t have a culture of accountability. In the culture we have, once a patient is out of the hospital, that patient is now someone else’s responsibility. And the same is true outside the hospital.”

Patients often assume that their doctors are all on the same page, Arbaje said. “I think some levers could get moved if there was some outrage from the public,” she added. “People asking why isn’t care done this way.”

SOURCE: and CMAJ, online August 27, 2018.