10 Things Docs & Older Patients Should Question

“Choosing Wisely”, and initiative of the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) Foundation, has released a 2014 update from the American Geriatrics Society listing 10 procedures and tests that should not be routinely performed or prescribed for older patients:

1) Don’t recommend percutaneous feeding tubes in patients with advanced dementia. Instead offer oral assisted feeding.Careful hand-feeding for patients with severe dementia is at least as good as tube-feeding for the outcomes of death, aspiration pneumonia, functional status and patient comfort. Food is the preferred nutrient. Tube-feeding is associated with agitation, increased use of physical and chemical restraints and worsening pressure ulcers.

2) Don’t use antipsychotics as first choice to treat behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia.People with dementia often exhibit aggression, resistance to care and other challenging or disruptive behaviors. In such instances, antipsychotic medicines are often prescribed, but they provide limited benefit and can cause serious harm, including stroke and premature death. Use of these drugs should be limited to cases where non-pharmacologic measures have failed and patients pose an imminent threat to themselves or others. Identifying and addressing causes of behavior change can make drug treatment unnecessary.

3) Avoid using medications to achieve hemoglobin A1c <7.5% in most adults age 65 and older. Moderate control is generally better.There is no evidence that using medications to achieve tight glycemic control in older adults with type 2 diabetes is beneficial. Among non-older adults, except for long-term reductions in myocardial infarction and mortality with metformin, using medications to achieve glycated hemoglobin levels less than 7% is associated with harms, including higher mortality rates. Tight control has been consistently shown to produce higher rates of hypoglycemia in older adults. Given the long timeframe to achieve theorized microvascular benefits of tight control, glycemic targets should reflect patient goals, health status, and life expectancy. Reasonable glycemic targets would be 7.0 – 7.5% in healthy older adults with long life expectancy, 7.5 – 8.0% in those with moderate comorbidity and a life expectancy < 1 0 years, and 8.0 – 9.0% in those with multiple morbidities and shorter life expectancy.

4) Don’t use benzodiazepines or other sedative-hypnotics in older adults as first choice for insomnia, agitation or delirium.Large scale studies consistently show that the risk of motor vehicle accidents, falls and hip fractures leading to hospitalization and death can more than double in older adults taking benzodiazepines and other sedative-hypnotics. Older patients, their caregivers and their providers should recognize these potential harms when considering treatment strategies for insomnia, agitation or delirium. Use of benzodiazepines should be reserved for alcohol withdrawal symptoms/delirium tremens or severe generalized anxiety disorder unresponsive to other therapies.

5) Don’t use antimicrobials to treat bacteriuria in older adults unless specific urinary tract symptoms are present. Cohort studies have found no adverse outcomes for older men or women associated with asymptomatic bacteriuria. Antimicrobial treatment studies for asymptomatic bacteriuria in older adults demonstrate no benefits and show increased adverse antimicrobial effects. Consensus criteria has been developed to characterize the specific clinical symptoms that, when associated with bacteriuria, define urinary tract infection. Screening for and treatment of asymptomatic bacteriuria is recommended before urologic procedures for which mucosal bleeding is anticipated.

6) Don’t prescribe cholinesterase inhibitors for dementia without periodic assessment for perceived cognitive benefits and adverse gastrointestinal effects. In randomized controlled trials, some patients with mild-to-moderate and moderate-to-severe Alzheimer’s disease (AD) achieve modest benefits in delaying cognitive and functional decline and decreasing neuropsychiatric symptoms. The impact of cholinesterase inhibitors on institutionalization, quality of life and caregiver burden are less well established. Clinicians, caregivers and patients should discuss cognitive, functional and behavioral goals of treatment prior to beginning a trial of cholinesterase inhibitors. Advance care planning, patient and caregiver education about dementia, diet and exercise and non-pharmacologic approaches to behavioral issues are integral to the care of patients with dementia, and should be included in the treatment plan in addition to any consideration of a trial of cholinesterase inhibitors. If goals of treatment are not attained after a reasonable trial (e.g., 12 weeks), then consider discontinuing the medication. Benefits beyond a year have not been investigated and the risks and benefits of long-term therapy have not been well-established.

7) Don’t recommend screening for breast or colorectal cancer, nor prostate cancer (with the PSA test) without considering life expectancy and the risks of testing, overdiagnosis and overtreatment.Cancer screening is associated with short-term risks, including complications from testing, overdiagnosis and treatment of tumors that would not have led to symptoms. For prostate cancer, 1,055 men would need to be screened and 37 would need to be treated to avoid one death in 11 years. For breast and colorectal cancer, 1,000 patients would need to be screened to prevent one death in 10 years. For patients with a life expectancy under 10 years, screening for these three cancers exposes them to immediate harms with little chance of benefit.

8) Avoid using prescription appetite stimulants or high-calorie supplements for treatment of anorexia or cachexia in older adults. Instead, optimize social supports, provide feeding assistance and clarify patient goals and expectations.Unintentional weight loss is a common problem for medically ill or frail elderly. Although high-calorie supplements increase weight in older people, there is no evidence that they affect other important clinical outcomes, such as quality of life, mood, functional status or survival. Use of megestrol acetate results in minimal improvements in appetite and weight gain, no improvement in quality of life or survival, and increased risk of thrombotic events, fluid retention and death. In patients who take megestrol acetate, one in 12 will have an increase in weight and one in 23 will die. The 2012 AGS Beers criteria lists megestrol acetate and cyproheptadine as medications to avoid in older adults. Systematic reviews of cannabinoids, dietary polyunsaturated fatty acids (DHA and EPA), thalidomide and anabolic steroids, have not identified adequate evidence for the efficacy and safety of these agents for weight gain. Mirtazapine is likely to cause weight gain or increased appetite when used to treat depression, but there is little evidence to support its use to promote appetite and weight gain in the absence of depression.

9) Don’t prescribe a medication without conducting a drug regimen review. Older patients disproportionately use more prescription and non-prescription drugs than other populations, increasing the risk for side effects and inappropriate prescribing. Polypharmacy may lead to diminished adherence, adverse drug reactions and increased risk of cognitive impairment, falls and functional decline. Medication review identifies high-risk medications, drug interactions and those continued beyond their indication. Additionally, medication review elucidates unnecessary medications and underuse of medications, and may reduce medication burden. Annual review of medications is an indicator for quality prescribing in vulnerable elderly.

10) Avoid physical restraints to manage behavioral symptoms of hospitalized older adults with delirium. Persons with delirium may display behaviors that risk injury or interference with treatment. There is little evidence to support the effectiveness of physical restraints in these situations. Physical restraints can lead to serious injury or death and may worsen agitation and delirium. Effective alternatives include strategies to prevent and treat delirium, identification and management of conditions causing patient discomfort, environmental modifications to promote orientation and effective sleep-wake cycles, frequent family contact and supportive interaction with staff. Nursing educational initiatives and innovative models of practice have been shown to be effective in implementing a restraint-free approach to patients with delirium. This approach includes continuous observation; trying re-orientation once, and if not effective, not continuing; observing behavior to obtain clues about patients’ needs; discontinuing and/or hiding unnecessary medical monitoring devices or IVs; and avoiding short-term memory questions to limit patient agitation. Pharmacological interventions are occasionally utilized after evaluation by a medical provider at the bedside, if a patient presents harm to him or herself or others. Physical restraints should only be used as a very last resort and should be discontinued at the earliest possible time.