Being Mortal by Atul Gawande:
Several years ago, researchers at the University of Minnesota identified 568 men and women over the age of seventy who were living independently but were at high risk of becoming disabled because of chronic health problems, recent illness, or cognitive changes. With their permission, the researchers randomly assigned half of them to see a team of geriatric nurses and doctors—a team dedicated to the art and science of managing old age. The others were asked to see their usual physician, who was notified of their high-risk status. Within eighteen months, 10 percent of the patients in both groups had died. But the patients who had seen a geriatrics team were a quarter less likely to become disabled and half as likely to develop depression. They were 40 percent less likely to require home health services.
These were stunning results. If scientists came up with a device—call it an automatic defrailer—that wouldn’t extend your life but would slash the likelihood you’d end up in a nursing home or miserable with depression, we’d be clamoring for it. We wouldn’t care if doctors had to open up your chest and plug the thing into your heart. We’d have pink-ribbon campaigns to get one for every person over seventy-five. Congress would be holding hearings demanding to know why forty-year-olds couldn’t get them installed. Medical students would be jockeying to become defrailulation specialists, and Wall Street would be bidding up company stock prices.
Instead, it was just geriatrics. The geriatric teams weren’t doing lung biopsies or back surgery or insertion of automatic defrailers. What they did was to simplify medications. They saw that arthritis was controlled. They made sure toenails were trimmed and meals were square. They looked for worrisome signs of isolation and had a social worker check that the patient’s home was safe.
How do we reward this kind of work? Chad Boult, the geriatrician who was the lead investigator of the University of Minnesota study, can tell you. A few months after he published the results, demonstrating how much better people’s lives were with specialized geriatric care, the university closed the division of geriatrics.