Study objective: We sought to synthesize the literature on patterns of use of emergency services among older adults, risk factors associated with adverse health outcomes, and effectiveness of intervention strategies targeting this population.
Methods: Relevant articles were identified by means of an English-language search of MEDLINE, HealthSTAR, CINAHL, Current Contents, and Cochrane Library databases from January 1985 to January 2001. This search was supplemented with literature from reference sections of the retrieved publications. A qualitative approach was used to synthesize the literature.
Results: Compared with younger persons, older adults use emergency services at a higher rate, their visits have a greater level of urgency, they have longer stays in the emergency department, they are more likely to be admitted or to have repeat ED visits, and they experience higher rates of adverse health outcomes after discharge. The risk factors commonly associated with the negative outcomes are age, functional impairment, recent hospitalization or ED use, living alone, and lack of social support. Comprehensive geriatric screening and coordinated discharge planning initiatives designed to improve clinical outcomes in older emergency patients have provided inconclusive results.
Conclusion: Older ED patients have distinct patterns of service use and care needs. The current disease-oriented and episodic models of emergency care do not adequately respond to the complex care needs of frail older patients. More research is needed to determine the effectiveness of screening and intervention strategies targeting at-risk older ED patients.