SAN FRANCISCO (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Obtaining palliative medicine consultations for geriatric trauma patients may help avoid futile interventions, suggests a retrospective cohort study reported at the annual clinical congress of the American College of Surgeons.

“The bulk of trauma in the United States has become geriatrics, and it’s falls from standing height,” noted lead investigator Dr. Christine C. Toevs, a trauma surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh; these older patients often have multiple comorbidities and are frail, and thus have a poor prognosis even with the best of care. “Clearly, this is a patient population that would benefit greatly from routine palliative medicine consultation,” she said.

Dr. Toevs and her colleagues performed a retrospective study of the charts of 5,261 trauma patients treated at their Level 1 trauma center during 2011-2013. One-third were geriatric, defined as aged 65 years or older.

Overall, 15% of geriatric patients and 2% of nongeriatric patients received a palliative medicine consult. The majority in both groups had a traumatic brain injury.

Within the geriatric age-group, about 90% of the patients who had a consult did not undergo tracheostomy and percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tube placement. Mortality was about 8% in this age-group overall, but 16% in the subset who received a consult.

“It seems that palliative medicine consult within the geriatric patient population does result in [fewer] procedures,” Dr. Toevs commented. “And studies have shown that when we talk to families and patients who participate in their care, they really do not want these procedures.”

Within the nongeriatric age–group, roughly 60% of patients with a consult did not undergo tracheostomy and percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy (PEG) tube placement. Mortality was about 3% in this age-group overall but 30% for those receiving the consult.

“Younger patients who receive palliative medicine consults seem to have the most severe injuries, not unexpectedly. These tend to be patients with the most severe traumatic brain injuries who still during their hospitalization are not demonstrating any signs of waking up. I think we all agree younger patients need a little more time than older patients, but some families don’t want to go down that route at all,” Dr. Toevs said. “So it’s reasonable before placing a trach in these patients with brain injuries, young or old, to have these discussions.”

Among all patients with a palliative medicine consult, geriatric patients were more likely to be discharged to a skilled nursing facility (32% vs. 15%), whereas nongeriatric patients were more likely to be discharged to a long-term acute care facility (13% vs. 5%) or rehabilitation facility (18% vs. 12%).

Whether avoiding long-term acute care facilities is a better outcome for geriatric patients “depends on how you look at it,” according to Dr. Toevs. “The bulk of the data suggest that 90% of all patients say that they really don’t want all that we do for them at the end of life, so most of us would consider this a better outcome.”

Three-fourths of all geriatric patients with a tracheostomy were discharged to a long-term acute care facility, although data suggest that few such patients survive to discharge. “So what we are doing is we are relocating the death rather than actually addressing the issues of what kind of life do they want,” she commented. “Do they really want the end of their lives to be in an ICU or a step-down ICU in a long-term acute care hospital? So if the patients ultimately get trached, the outcomes tend to be much worse as you can imagine and, in my mind, we have not done nearly as good a job as we should have initially; we should have in some way preempted this, and we didn’t explain to everyone well enough that this really was not considered a good outcome.”

The investigators plan further research in this area, according to Dr. Toevs, who disclosed that she had no relevant conflicts of interest. “We are looking at long-term survival data if we do send them to places after geriatric trauma – what really happens to them, what’s their survival at 6 months and a year – so that we can give [these] data to their families,” she elaborated. “We are also working with our rehab doctors to look at functional assessments and prognostication of these patients, and ultimately, really being able to quantify the benefits of palliative medicine and the goals of care discussions with these patients.”

Invited discussant Dr. Henri R. Ford , chief of surgery at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles asked, “What were the specific criteria used, on average, to decide whether somebody should get a palliative medicine consultation? Have you tried to standardize that pretty much across the board for all of your trauma patients?”

Use of these consults at her hospital has increased since she began pushing for them, according to Dr. Toevs. “What I would like to do is to make it as routine as possible – every person on the trauma service gets a rehab consult; to some degree, every person on the trauma service should get a palliative medicine consult. It ought to be a checkbox. We are not quite there yet. But right now, I’m pushing for 80% and above, just to make it routine to begin the discussion: Do they have an advance directive? Do they have a power of attorney? Have they thought about these things long term?”

“Did you also compare the injury severity scores for the various patients, not only for the geriatric but also for those who received palliative medicine consultations versus those who did not?” Dr. Ford further asked. “That would be very, very interesting for us in terms of understanding selection bias.”

The investigators looked at these scores in another study, finding that they were lower for geriatric patients than for nongeriatric patients, as expected. “But because of their frailty, they do much poorer. And we are trying to correlate that long term when we are working with our rehab doctors and trying to look at the ability to prognosticate basically upon functional status prior to injury.”

Dr. Toevs disclosed that she had no relevant conflicts of interest.