How Medical Assistants Can Better Deal with Elderly Patients
America's population is aging. As a result, more and more patients coming to doctors' offices, clinics, and rehabilitation facilities are likely to be 65 or older. By 2030, 71 million Americans are projected to be over age 65, a 200 percent increase from 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.*
As a group, the elderly pose special challenges to health care providers. Their hearing can be impaired, which can make verbal communication more difficult. Their eyesight may be failing as well. Many elderly suffer from muscle weakness, problems with balance, memory deficits, and other physical, mental and emotional challenges that can impede even routine medical examinations.
As a medical assistant responsible for preparing patients for examinations, taking patient histories and other critical patient interactions, you need to be skilled in dealing with the elderly. Understanding the special challenges older men and women face and having the tools to overcome them can make you a valuable asset to any medical practice.
Here are some of the strategies and tactics you can use to deal more effectively with older patients:
1. Allow for additional time. Older patients not only tend to have more problems communicating and understanding new concepts, but they can also be more nervous and resistant than younger patients. So allow more time when taking patient histories and taking vital signs.
2. Be ready to provide physical assistance. Older patients may need help walking to the examination room, removing clothing and climbing onto the examination table. Be ready to provide assistance as necessary.
3. Avoid distractions. Make sure the examination room is quiet, secure and distraction-free. This will help promote focus and make your patients feel that they command your attention.
4. Stand directly in the patient's line of sight. As noted earlier, elderly patients may have problems with vision and hearing. Working face-to-face can improve communication and also help avoid distractions.
5. Maintain eye contact. Again, maintaining patient focus improves both communication and tends to enhance the patient's feelings of well-being. All patients want to feel important and cared for, but this issue is even more important when dealing with the elderly.
6. Listen. Being a good listener is a big part of being an effective health care professional. Let the patient complete his or her thoughts before interrupting with questions or moving ahead with procedures. You might even pick up some information that turns out to be vital to your supervising doctor.
7. Speak slowly and use short, simple sentences. Older people tend to speak and process verbal information more slowly than their younger counterparts. When speaking, articulate clearly, speak at an enhanced volume (but don't shout), and use short, simple sentences when possible.
8. Carefully explain each procedure and its purpose. Explaining each procedure can help decrease patient anxiety and improve cooperation.
9. Avoid confrontations. Because older patients have often experienced significant loss of one kind or another, they can become fearful. And fear often leads to aggression. If an older patient becomes hostile, back off and discuss the situation with your supervising physician.
Although as a group older patients have similar issues, every individual is different. Some elderly patients may need more specialized attention than others. As a medical assistant, it's important to remain alert, flexible and sensitive to each patient's particular situation. With time and practice, your skills dealing with the elderly will increase, and many of these tactics will become second nature to you.
* Source: 1. U.S. Interim Projections by Age, Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau; 2004. Available at: http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/usinterimproj. Accessed July 13, 2006.