Depression and other mental health issues in the elderly–with a special note on falls and depressions

By Karen Stephen, Ph. D., Mental Health Clinical Director, Partnership HealthPlan of California


As a Medi-Cal MCP, we don’t often think about serving elderly or 65+ Members, but October 2017 Medi-Cal eligibility tables indicate that 45,145 Medi-Cal eligible 65+ Members reside in PHC’s 14-county service area. When divided by Aid Group, 323 of those are listed under Parent/Caregiver Relative & Child (let’s give a shout out to those grandparents who are raising grand- or great-grandchildren!), 524 are Undocumented, and 36,562 fall within the SPD (Seniors and Persons with Disabilities) category. Nearly all of 65+ Members (40,137) are listed as dual eligible (meaning Medicare would be the primary insurer for mental health care instead of Beacon Health Options).

Isn’t it interesting that once you’re over 65 (speaking as a person who is 74), that you automatically get lumped in with those with a disability. Perhaps as a nation, we do see age simply as the “final” disability instead of seeing aging as our golden passport into the “venerable elder” category.

According to the World Health Organization, the most common mental health problems in this age group and the percentage affected world-wide are dementia (5%) and depression (7%). Anxiety is seen in 3.8%, and substance use disorders in 1%. Remarkably, one-quarter of all deaths from self-harm are among people 60 and above. In addition, one in ten are vulnerable to elder abuse (physical, verbal, financial, sexual, or abandonment/neglect). Reduced mobility, chronic pain, and frailty combine to require long term care. Other factors such as bereavement, drop in socioeconomic status lead to isolation and loneliness.

And here are some startling statistics: There are currently 50 million people with dementia (60% residing in low to middle income countries). There will be 82 million in 2030 and 152 million in 2050. Calculate for a moment how old you will be 12 or 32 years from now—and think about what chances you will have of receiving treatment and resources for possible dementia at that age!

Two other important issues cited by WHO:

  • Elders with depression have POORER functioning than those with chronic medical conditions such as lung disease, hypertension, and diabetes.
  • Depression increases the PERCEPTION of poor health and thus increases utilization of healthcare services and costs.

The CDC cites some other important issues:

  • Depression is more common in those who have other illnesses and whose function is limited
  • Older adults are underdiagnosed—symptoms of depression are seen as just a natural reaction to illness or life changes and, therefore, not to be treated. And, even worse, older adults share this belief.
  • Estimates of occurrence of depression is 13.5% in those who require home health care, and 11.5% in those hospitalized.

Here is a FACT SHEET for Depression in Older Persons distributed by NAMI, for an in depth discussion of the topic.


In treating patients 65+ for mental health disorders (because the majority are duals), they will not be eligible for Beacon services even though their condition may fall within the mild to moderate range. If you do not have resources within your clinic to treat these patients under Medicare (pamphlet on Medicare Mental Health Services), then two resources for finding mental health professionals in your community who accept Medicare is the Medicare Physician Compare page or the Psychology Today website.

But the old adage applies. You can lead a horse…etc. The main referral issue is that, as cited above, seniors are not likely to see the need for mental health care and are even more sensitive to the stigma issue because of their generation. A recently published major study of 240,000 patients receiving a diagnosis of depression in the PRIMARY CARE setting, indicated that only 37.5% start treatment, that those 60+ were half as likely to start treatment than those under 44, and that 80% chose medication over psychotherapy (with only 7% of those over 75 choosing therapy). Here are some tips to increase odds of the elderly accepting psychotherapy as a treatment option for depression:

  • Do use the PHQ-9 to diagnose their depression. But in discussing the results, use a TRAUMA INFORMED approach. Focus not on what is WRONG with the patient but WHAT THEY ARE GOING THROUGH. For example:
  • DON’T SAY: Our screening indicates you are suffering from depression and I recommend [medication and psychotherapy options].
  • DO SAY: Seniors your age who have gone through so much [cite their specific chronic illnesses, losses, changes in economic status, falls, and isolation] that they often suffer from depression. I can prescribe medication but you can also learn coping skills and get needed support from a therapist or counselor. Can I help you find someone you can talk to about your life situation and needs at this time?
  • Of course, if there are risk factors present (age, in and of itself, being one of them), be sure to use County crisis services or law enforcement as needed for crisis intervention.


As a psychologist I cannot make recommendations regarding medication in the treatment of mental health problems in the 65+ population, but I will pass along some general recommendations from sources available online.

From an article on Pharmacologic treatment of depression in the elderly (2014):

  • Motto: START LOW and GO SLOW!
  • Initial dosing should be half of the usual adult starting dose and be titrated regularly until the patient responds, until the maximum dose is reached, or until side effects limit further increases.
  • Common side effects of medications include falls, nausea, dizziness, headaches, and, less commonly, hyponatremia and QT interval changes.

And on the risks of using antidepressants and benzodiazepines for depression and anxiety in the elderly from an article on Geriatric pharmacotherapy (2015)

  • Antidepressants.For the elderly, the most significant risks include anticholinergic, sedative, cognitive, cardiovascular (blood pressure and conduction), falls and increased bleeding (made worse for the elderly already receiving anticoagulant medication).
  • The problems with using benzodiazepines in the elderly include a reduced capacity to metabolize the drugs in the elderly (increasing their t1/2 and increasing the risk for toxicity); active metabolites in some of the medications (essentially creating an extended release function); the side effects of cognitive (executive function), memory and attentional deficits (functions which may already be impaired in the elderly); decreased reaction time; and increased risk for falls. Add to this that benzodiazepines may cause paradoxical reactions (i.e., increase agitation) in the elderly; can produce carryover effects next day; and can produce tolerance, dependence and respiratory depression. Also, once started, benzodiazepines are notoriously difficult to withdraw.

An important resource for prescribing to the elderly is the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) Beers Criteria (2015) providing information on medications that are either ineffective or high risk when used to treat elderly patients.


As a senior who had a recent fall when on vacation and sustained a head injury, I have become well aware of the risks of falling and its connection to depression. The trauma and subsequent mobility limitations and social isolation almost immediately triggered depressive and anxiety feelings—even while I was still in “paradise” (kudos, by the way, to the marvelous staff at Kaiser Moanalua in Oahu during my 2-day stay). And this occurred in someone not compromised by chronic illness, mobility or balance issues, not under the adverse effects of any substance or medication, and not cognitively impaired (at least not before the accident!). How much more significant a fall is in terms of personal and societal costs for seniors who have these comorbid conditions.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite that:

  • One in four Americans aged 65+ falls each year.
  • Every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.
  • Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of nonfatal trauma-related hospital admissions among older adults.
  • Falls result in more than 2.8 million injuries treated in emergency departments annually, including over 800,000 hospitalizations and more than 27,000 deaths.
  • In 2014, the total cost of fall injuries was $31 billion.
  • The financial toll for older adult falls is expected to increase as the population ages and may reach $67.7 billion by 2020.
  • Falls, with or without injury, also carry a heavy quality of life impact. A growing number of older adults fear falling and, as a result, limit their activities and social engagements. This can result in further physical decline, depression, social isolation, and feelings of helplessness.

Seniors can find evidence-based fall prevention and balance programs through their Area Agency on the Aging or their Public Library. Members assigned to Kaiser Permanente can register for Fall Prevention classes there. Some counties have fall prevention services that can assess homes for risks of fall and provide advice and night lights.

Diagnosis of Celiac Disease

By Robert Moore, MD, MPH, MBA, Chief Medical Officer

Clinical Case:  A 23 year old woman with a several year history of gastritis (with prior treatment for H. pylori), migraine headaches, geographic tongue and anemia has a complete blood count ordered by her primary care physician, finding a hemoglobin of 9.7 with microcytic indices.  She has an uncle with gluten intolerance, first developing these symptoms after being treated successfully for H. pylori-associated duodenal ulcer disease.

What is the probability that this woman has Celiac disease?  What does Helicobacter pylori infection have to do with Celiac Disease?  What is the best first test to perform?


Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease affecting about 1% of the U.S. population, but 83% of these individuals are either undiagnosed or diagnosed with other conditions without making the link to the underlying Celiac Disease.  Of those 17% who are diagnosed, the mean time between onset of symptoms and diagnosis is between 8 and 11 years.  It is arguably the most underdiagnosed and misdiagnosed condition in the United States, although this is beginning to change, thanks to new genetic and antibody tests that help point to the right diagnosis before doing a confirmatory duodenal biopsy.  Primary care providers need to know what signs, symptoms and blood tests should prompt further workup, and how to do the initial, low-invasive testing.

On the flip side, there are a growing number of people who have (or believe they have) gluten intolerance, who do not have Celiac disease.

The history of the discovery of Celiac Disease is a case of an astute clinician making an observation under conditions of a natural experiment.

In the 1930s, Dutch pediatrician Willem Dicke was studying a mysterious, often fatal disease among children, where they were losing weight and malnourished in spite of plenty of vitamin-rich caloric intake.  While he suspected this malabsorption syndrome was related to diet, he was not able to pinpoint the culprit until the winter of 1944, during World War II.  Dutch railway workers held a strike in support of the Allies, prompting the Nazis to cut off food shipments to Dutch civilians, which led to mass starvation, except for Dr. Dicke’s pediatric patients, who actually got better.

During 1945, the allies parachuted bread to Holland, ending the Hunger Winter, ending the starvation, but Dr. Dicke’s patients immediately relapsed.  He hypothesized that grains were the cause of the malabsorption syndrome.  He performed an experiment on the children, putting them on a gluten free diet, showing that the symptoms were completely gone, then put them back on a regular diet, showing that the symptoms came back.


Causes of Celiac Disease:  As an autoimmune disease, there is a combination of a genetic predisposition and environmental factors.

  1. Genetic:  In terms of genetic predisposition:  95% of those with Celiac Disease have a gene called HLA DQ2, and most of the remainder have HLA DQ8.  However, of those individuals with either the HLA DQ2 or HLA DQ8 genes, only 3% have Celiac Disease.

In summary, although negative genetic testing can rule out celiac disease, a positive test cannot confirm the diagnosis.

Thirteen additional genes are associated with an increased risk that those with DQ2 or DQ8 will develop Celiac Disease.

Among first degree relatives carrying the DQ2 or DQ8 gene, 30% of symptomatic first degree relatives have Celiac Disease, and 10% of asymptomatic first degree relatives also have the disease found on intestinal biopsy.  Overall, between 5 and 22% of individuals with Celiac Disease have a first degree relative who also has Celiac Disease.

  1. Exposure to Gluten: The incidence of Celiac Disease is higher in populations with larger consumption of wheat.  Thirty years ago there was literally an epidemic of Celiac Disease in Swedish infants, when low rates of breastfeeding combined with standard use of wheat in infant formula, which led to diarrhea and failure to gain weight.  In the 1980s, Celiac Disease was widely recognized and diagnosed in Italy, a country with a culinary culture of pasta, bread and pizza dough, all rich in gluten.  Northern India (which consumes more bread) has a higher rate of Celiac Disease than southern India, where rice is the staple.
  1. Protective Factors: When genetic factors and diet are the same, the incidence of Celiac Disease is lower in lower income populations compared to higher income populations, as found in epidemiological studies.  Using stored serum samples, researchers have found a four-fold increase in incidence of Celiac Disease over the past 50 years.  While overall income has increased in that period, what is the underlying cause for this association?

An epidemiological study published in 2013 suggests one potential mechanism for this finding:   Helicobacter pylori infection, whose incidence is higher in low income populations, is associated with half the rate of Celiac Disease.  Increased recognition of H. pylori infection as a cause of gastritis and peptic ulcers has led to widespread treatment, solving one problem but potentially increasing the risk of another.   There may be other protective factors related to other bacterial flora which we do not yet understand.


Clinical Diagnosis:

Many common conditions of the intestinal tract and elsewhere in the body may be associated with Celiac Disease, either directly by the autoimmune process, mediated through the resulting malabsorption/malnutrition/vitamin deficiency or associated with the psychological stress of the other symptoms.  These include:

  • Vitamin deficiencies (Iron, B1, B12, A, D, E, K etc.), with symptoms associated with these deficiencies (easy bruising, pallor, fatigue/weakness).  Iron deficiency in an adult should prompt consideraration for testing for Celiac Disease.
  • GI symptoms (abdominal pain, bloating, gas, reflux, indigestion, nausea, and diarrhea)
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Weight loss or falling off normal growth curve in children
  • Reproductive conditions: menstrual irregularities, infertility, recurrent miscarriages, delayed puberty
  • Oral health conditions: aphthous ulcers, dental enamel abnormalities, geographic tongue (this study showed 15% of patients with geographic tongue have Celiac Disease, 80% of these had no abdominal GI symptoms!)
  • Neurologic conditions: peripheral neuropathy, ataxia, epilepsy, concentration and learning difficulties, migraine headaches
  • Psychological conditions: depression
  • Other: elevated liver enzymes (don’t assume fatty liver!); bone and joint pain

Laboratory Diagnosis:

All tests listed here are covered by Partnership HealthPlan, without any prior authorization requirement.

The first line tests for individuals with symptoms are antibody tests:

  1. Tissue transglutaminase (TtG) IgA or IgG elevated
  2. Endomysial (EMA) IgA elevated
  3. Total IgA
  4. Deaminated gliadin peptide (DGP) IgA and/or IgG present

These can be ordered in a panel from Quest Diagnositics:  the Celiac Disease Diagnositc Panel uses lab code:  15681.

The Celiac Disease Diagnostic Panel has a hyperlink:

Having noted these potential tests, the algorithm for using these antibody tests with the tests below is complex; the Mayo Clinic algorithm is a good example.
Mayo Clinic Celiac Disease Diagnostic Testing Algorithm

Genetic tests for HLA DQ2 and DQ8 can be ordered through all major laboratories serving PHC patients.  As noted above, this is best used to rule out Celiac disease or to test for genetic predisposition in families with Celiac Disease.  The Quest lab code is 17135 (HLA typing for Celiac Disease).  Like most genetic tests, it is expensive and only covered once in a lifetime for an individual patient; it should only be ordered if the clinician is sure it has not been ordered before.

A definitive diagnosis requires intestinal biopsy, conducted by upper endoscopy after a period of time consuming gluten daily.  During the endoscopy, villous atrophy is often noted visually.  Re-biopsy several months after being on a traditional gluten-free diet is required, as 20% of individuals with Celiac Disease also have intolerance to the gluten-like proteins in oats, others may react to the gluten-like proteins in corn.

Although not standard in the United States, some European physicians will omit the initial confirmatory biopsy in symptomatic individuals with all 3 of the following:

  1. Elevated TgG IgA
  2. Elevated EMA IgA
  3. HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8 positive.

Note that this is different than the practice in the Unites States, which always a confirmatory biopsy for cases very suspicious of Celiac disease.

Case Follow Up:

As noted above, the diagnosis of geographic tongue alone gives her a 15% risk of having Celiac Disease.  Having a second-degree relative with Celiac-like symptoms probably adds some additional risk; if he had a definitive diagnosis of Celiac, it would be about a 5-10% independent risk for this woman.  The prior treatment of Helicobacter pylori infection may have increased her risk as well.

She had positive TgG IgA and EMA IgA, followed by a confirmatory small bowel biopsy.  After initiating a gluten free diet focused on avoiding wheat, barley and rye, combined with vitamin supplementation, her abdominal symptoms, anemia, geographic tongue, depression, and migraine headaches all resolved.


Putting Trauma Informed Care into Practice – Part 2

Part II: Implementing Trauma-Informed Care into Organizational Culture and Practice (Ken Epstein PhD LCSW, SF Department of Public Health and Rahil Briggs, PsyD, Montefiore Medical Group)

Link to audio of entire webinar session:

Chronic Stressors and Collective Trauma In an Organization Are Caused by:

  • Not enough time for collaboration or supervision
  • Staff and budget cuts
  • Client needs vs. services offered
  • Technology and paperwork demands
  • Task-driven vs. relational reforms
  • Feeling unsafe with co-workers
  • Staff turnover
  • Traumatic events in the workplace

Characteristics of a TRAUMA ORGANIZED system:

  • Reactive
  • Organizational Hyperarousal
  • Reliving/retelling
  • Us vs. Them
  • Interpersonal Conflict
  • Avoiding
  • Authoritarian leadership
  • Dissociation/Amnesia

Characteristics of a TRAUMA INFORMED system:

  • Shared language
  • Understanding of trauma and healing
  • Understanding racial disparities and insidious trauma

Characteristics of a HEALING system:

  • Reflective
  • Collaborative
  • Culture of learning/curiosity
  • Making meaning of the past
  • Growth and prevention oriented (conflict OK)
  • Relational leadership

Understanding the traumatic beliefs or TRIGGERS for those who have experienced trauma:

  • Event: Door to examining room is closed even when patient asks for it to be open.
    • Traumatic belief: I am not safe.
  • Event: Patient told she must undergo a certain procedure regardless of her anxiety.
    • Traumatic belief: People want to hurt me.
  • Event: Patient is told she cannot be seen because she arrived late for appointment.
    • Traumatic Belief: If I am in trouble, no one will help
  • Event: Waiting room is filled to overflowing with patients allowed to be disruptive.
    • Traumatic Belief: The world is dangerous

Negative roles providers/staff can take with patients who have had traumatic experiences:

  • The Avoider (moving away): Withdrawing, dis-enrolling or referring patient elsewhere, silence with patients/colleagues, using inappropriate humor
  • The Superhero (moving toward): Exaggerated sense of responsibility, excessive advocacy, over-sharing
  • The Critic (moving against): Anger and irritability, heated arguments, sarcastic remarks

Trauma-informed reactions to the traumatized patient (PEARLS)

  • Partnership: Let’s work together
  • Empathy: That sounds frustrating (when patient complains)
  • Apology: I am sorry that happened (when untoward event occurs with patient)
  • Respect: You have gone through a lot
  • Legitimization: I understand why you are so upset
  • Support: Let’s see what we can do

Secondary trauma or compassion fatigue:

  • A gradual erosion of all the things that keep us connected to others in our caregiver role.
  • You didn’t experience the trauma but hear about it second-hand from a patient or a colleague
  • Symptoms are similar to those of patients who have trauma experiences including PTSD

Online MINDFULNESS/RELAXATION RESOURCES for patients or staff dealing with past or current trauma:

Additional resources to create trauma informed clinics:

Examples of trauma-informed and non-trauma-informed office waiting rooms

Creating Safe, Trauma-Informed Agencies (North Carolina Division of Social Services)

Developing a Trauma Informed Agency (Alameda County CA)

Putting Trauma Informed Care into Practice – Part 1

By Karen Stephen, Ph.D., PHC Mental Health Clinical Director

Part I:  Implementing Trauma-Informed Care in Pediatric and Adult Primary Care Settings  (Nadine Burke-Harris MD Center for Youth Wellness and Edward Machtinger MD, Women’s HIV Program UCSF)

Link to audio of entire webinar session:

Definition of trauma: Event or series of events, or set of circumstances that are experienced by the individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening that can have lasting effects on the individual’s mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.

Types of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

  • Abuse: Physical, emotional, and sexual
  • Neglect: Physical, emotional
  • Household Dysfunction: Mental illness, mother treated violently, divorce, incarcerated relative, substance abuse

Increasing number of ACEs experienced increases impact on all aspects of physical and mental health, behavioral outcomes (e.g., smoking, addiction, alcoholism), and life potential (school and work success).

SAMSA data on ACE outcomes.  The landmark Kaiser study on ACEs.

Leading Causes of Death in US, 2013 Odds with 4 or more ACEs
1 Heart Disease 2.1
2 Cancer 2.3
3 Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases 3.0
4 Accidents
5 Stroke 2.4
6 Alzheimer’s 11.2
7 Diabetes 1.5
8 Influenza and Pneumonia
9 Kidney Disease
   10 Suicide 30.1


The biology of adversity:

  • Neurologic:
    • Dysregulation of HPA and SAM Axes
    • Activation of the amygdala
    • Inhibition of the prefrontal cortex
    • Hippocampal neurotoxicity
    • VTA and reward center dysregulation
  • Immunologic:
    • Increased inflammatory mediators and markers of inflammation such as interleukins, TNG alpha, IFN-y
    • Inhibition of anti-inflammatory pathways
    • Impaired cell-mediated acquired immunity
  • Endocine:
    • Long term endocrine changes in ACTH, cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones
    • Inhibition of thyroid function
    • Alterations in Growth Hormone and pubertal hormones
  • Cardiovascular:
    • Increased plasma endothelin 1, total peripheral resistance, DBP and pulse wave velocity
  • Epigenetic:
    • Altered epigenetic regulation leads to differential gene expression
    • Changes in way DNA is read and expressed lead to changes in the way brain and organ systems respond to stress
    • Telomere erosion leads to premature cell death and altered cell replication

What is trauma-informed care in a nutshell?

  • Take the person’s experience into account
  • Don’t ask “What’s wrong with you? Ask, “What happened to you?”
  • Needs to be addressed at clinical and organizational level.

Core principles of trauma-informed care:

  • Empower patients—use their strengths to develop treatment plans
  • Provide options, let patients choose
  • Maximize collaboration—patients, family members, staff
  • Ensure physical and emotional safety
  • Create trust through clear expectations regarding who, what, and how’s of treatment

Tools to screen for ACEs:




ACE score 0-3 without symptoms = Provide Anticipatory guidance

ACE score 1-3 with symptoms or 4 or more ACEs = Counsel and refer

Basics to Institute Trauma-Informed Primary Care:

Foundation: Train ALL staff, use clinic champions, support providers, ongoing evaluation

Screen:  Inquire about current and lifelong abuse, PTSD, depression, substance use

Create Environment:  Calm, safe, empowering for patients AND staff

Respond:  Use onsite and community based programs that promote safety and healing

What can you do tomorrow!

Realize that a lot of who we are and what we do is because of what happened to us.

Embrace trauma-informed values.

Distribute literature about impact of trauma on health

Get training for staff

Assemble a team to support the process

An Ounce of Prevention

It has been predicted that the 2017-2018 influenza season may be severe.  It is starting early – having shown up in Southern California earlier than usual.  It causes or is a part of the cause of death in thousands of people in the US every year – mostly small children/ babies and the elderly.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published guidance for preventing seasonal influenza in the workplace.

  • Promote influenza vaccine: “The single best way to protect against the flu is to get vaccinated each year.”   There are several types of vaccine that can be used depending on your particular health situation.  It is recommended for everyone 6 months and older.   Otherwise there are few people for whom the vaccine is not appropriate.  Vaccination during preganancy can help protect your newborn who is particularly at risk if the baby catches influenza.
    • Unfortunately, as the vaccines are prepared early in the year in anticipation of the major predicted strains of influenza in the fall, this year the vaccine was off the target from the prevalent strain causing influenza this year. However, protection against the 2 or 3 other strains involved in causing influenza remains.   It is still highly recommended.  I got mine – even during the fires!
    • The influenza vaccine is given at a time of the year when common colds show up in the population (kids back in school) – so many people have said they thought that the vaccination gave them the illness. THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN.
  • Hygiene
    • We have become familiar with cover your cough (either with your elbow or a tissue) and dispose of the tissue properly – stand away – it doesn’t take much distance to reduce exposure.
    • Wash your hands – transmission from hands can be prevented by washing. I do frequently during the day and when I arrive home from work.  Don’t be nuts about it but have common sense.
  • Know the signs and symptoms of influenza – influenza is NOT the common cold (people do come to work with colds – kinda unavoidable and a nuisance).  I consider influenza with the following symptoms that can often develop quickly:
    • Fever – almost always (or chills)
    • Cough – influenza is a respiratory illness
    • Body aches – yeah, this is part of the misery – ache all over
    • Headache – another typical part of the misery.

So you can see how influenza is different from the run of the mill cold or stomach ailment.  You can have sniffles, sore throat, stomach complaints, fatigue too, but I pay attention to the top four.

  • If you think you have influenza – GO HOME – STAY HOME– WATCH NETFLIX! (although you may want only to sleep) – Check in with your health care provider if you are at high risk or take a turn for the worse.   Don’t be a part of the spread of influenza in the workplace.

I practice these measures for five reasons

  • I don’t want to get sick – influenza – not the common cold – is miserable
  • I don’t want to use my valuable PTO time being ill! (hmm vacation or home feeling like I’ve been run over)
  • I don’t want to bring it home to my family (what a way to spoil the holidays and new year – and they will get mad at you)
  • I don’t want to bring it to work – “IT WAS YOU!”
  • AND I’m a doctor – walk the walk – I’m a believer

If you have influenza – stay home, rest, take fluids, medications like ibuprofen to feel better (don’t give aspirin to kids or adolescents).  If you worsen seek medical advice or help.   Don’t return to work until your fever is gone for 24 hours – you’ll know, the relief is remarkable.

Vaccine, cover, wash, recognize, stay home.

And Now for Something Completely Different

By Jeff Ribordy M.D., Regional Medical Director

As medical directors at Partnership HealthPlan of California, we are honored to review an array of medical records, treatment authorization requests and sundry other medical documentation on a daily basis. Every so often we encounter documentation that makes us scratch our heads and entices a chuckle. Here are some of the best-

Before the current “Golden Age” where everyone has an EHR and now loves charting endlessly (sarcasm intended) there were these things called “medical errors”. I know it’s hard to fathom, doctors making mistakes, but it’s not just fake news. Most of the “errors” were typically related to undecipherable hieroglyphics known as “doctors’ handwriting” leading to medication mistakes or other orders either being ignored or completed incorrectly.

While typed or dictated notes now allow legibility, comprehension can still be a struggle. Whether from stream of consciousness HPIs, dictation errors or excessive reliance on standard templates without reviewing, errors still are found. In our review of submitted medical records we have found a few mistakes that make us chuckle or even laugh out loud. I’m going to share some of these here – not to point fingers but with the understanding we all have made similar mistakes.

Sometimes we have to take a patient’s history with a grain of salt…

Fig 1

From the category of “How Do You Find The Time To Do Anything Else”:

Fig 2

 From the Physical Exam:

Fig 3

Family history can be…very revealing:

fig 4

And from the Catch-All category of “Huh?”:

fig 5

And good advice for everyone:

fig 6

When to Consider Palliative Care/Hospice for Patients with Advanced Dementia

Written by: Scott Endsley, MD, MSc., Associate Medical Director for Quality

Dementia is a terminal illness, like cancer or advanced heart disease. Dementia is rapidly increasing in the U.S. and worldwide. In 2012, there were over 5.2 million Americans with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). By 2025, the number is expected to grow by almost 30% to 6.7 million.[1] Along with the prevalence expanding at epidemic proportions, mortality also continues to increase. It is the 5th leading cause of death in the U.S.[2]

Dementia is a progressive disease with seven stages (figure 1). Alzheimer’s Disease may last for decades, though the mean in eight years. The Global Deterioration Scale[3] is a validated instrument that is helpful in staging the patient along the progression timeline. Memory and function loss proceeds inexorably across the stages until Stage 7 in which the patient has very limited words, incontinence, severe function loss requiring assistance for ADLs, and total disorientation. Median survival in Stage 7 is 1.3 years. Over 80% of patients in this stage have significant eating problems, often requiring assistance. Resultant weight loss is common. Infections, primarily pneumonia and urinary tract infections, are common and carry a high risk of mortality (40% or greater in the CASCADE study[4])

Palliative care is appropriate at any point after diagnosis and may be provided along with symptom management as early as Stage 2. Caregivers and providers are often confronted with the agonizing decision of anticipating death and entering the patient into hospice. Prognostication in advanced dementia is a problematic endeavor. The ADEPT tool has been developed to assist in predicting survival based upon eleven variables in demographics, cognitive status, functional status, active diagnoses. Risk scores greater than 16 (scale 1-32) suggests a six month probability of dying of > 50%. The Medicare Hospice guidelines requires the patient to have significant functional limitation (Stage 7 or beyond of Functional Assessment Staging (FAST) scale) AND at least one of six medical complications in the preceding year including aspiration pneumonia, pyelonephritis, septicemia, multiple decubitus ulcer, recurrent fevers after antibiotics, or inadequate hydration and caloric intake with 10% body weight during previous 6 months (or serum albumin less than 2.5 g/dl). When compared to the ADEPT prognostic tool, the Medicare Hospice guidelines perform less reliability in predicting 6 month mortality.

seven stages of dementia

Recommendations. As your patients with dementia of any type (Alzheimer, vascular, Lewy body) progress through the seven stages, consider the following:

  • Educate caregivers on the nature of dementia as a progressive and ultimately fatal disease
  • Initiate advance care planning conversations early (stage 1 or 2)
  • Ensure that a surrogate has been identified to medical decision making
  • Start palliative care in addition to other medical care early or at least by Stage 5 or 6.
  • Manage symptoms (neuropsychiatric, incontinence, insomnia) appropriately
  • Recommend caregiver assistance early to avoid burn-out and depression
  • Consider hospice evaluation at Stage 7


Resources. Many dementia management resources are available. Consult these as needed.

Alzheimer Association:

National Institute for Aging:

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization:

[1] Alzheimer’s Association. 2012 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures, accessed at:

[2] Tejada-Vera B. “Mortality from Alzheimer’s disease in the United States. NCHS Data Brief. National Center for Health Statistics, Hyattsville, MD 2013

[3] Reisberg B, Ferris SH, de Leon JJ, Crook T. “The Global Deterioration Scale for assessment of primary degenerative dementia”. Am  J. Psychiatry (1982), 139: 1136

[4] Mitchell SL, Teno JM, Kiely DK et al. “The Clinical Course of Advanced Dementia”, NEJM, (2009), 361:1529