A new electronic tool may help doctors determine if a senior is at risk of taking a tumble.
Not by testing their balance, though, but by taking a hard look at their medications.
Patrick Hardigan, a public health professor at Nova Southeastern University, has patented a new model for determining fall risk that would allow doctors to weigh a patient's likelihood of falling against the benefit of a medication. In some cases, they may want to consider changing a prescription, said Hardigan, who began researching falls among elders about eight years ago.
A private medical technology company, which NSU declined to name, is using Hardigan's algorithm to build iPad-based software that would connect with a patient's electronic medical file. NSU started testing the software this month with senior patients at its Florida Coastal Geriatric Resources, Education, and Training Center. It is expected to be available for purchase by physicians, hospitals and clinics next year.
Hardigan hopes to someday create an online version for consumers, giving them information they then could discuss with their health-care providers.
"But I do want to be cautious," said Hardigan, who is executive director of research for NSU's Health Professions Division. "I would not want a patient to not take a prescription because he didn't want to fall without first talking to his doctor."
Drugs for pain and hypertension, and antidepressants, create the greatest fall risk, research shows.
Hardigan said his Statistical Model for Predicting Falling in Humans can correctly identify fallers 92 percent to 95 percent of the time, as compared with 70 percent or 80 percent among other assessments. He developed his formula by looking at health data — height, weight, medical conditions and other factors along with medications — from the Florida Department of Elder Affairs on about 3,300 patients age 65 and older.
Dr. Joseph G. Ouslander, a professor at the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, said fall assessment is critical for seniors.
Falls were the top cause of non-fatal injuries to seniors age 65 and older, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with 2.4 million incidents in 2012. Federal statistics show Florida, the state with the highest percentage of seniors, had 1,714 fall deaths among seniors in 2009, more than any state.
Ouslander, who has designed and tested his own fall management program, said a software-based assessment could be "useful," but pointed out fall risk factors are well known.
Fall prediction innovations probably will continue to attract researchers and medical technology investors as baby boomers age and the potential number of those who could be injured or die continues to grow.
Doris Haas, a registered nurse and owner of Atlas Care Management in Fort Lauderdale, runs a fall-risk check on all her new senior clients. She uses a 20-question checklist, taken from a geriatric nursing book, that looks at medical conditions, depression and walking ability. It also asks if the senior is taking multiple drugs, and Haas said she and her care managers ask clients for more details on prescriptions.
Haas said she'll be interested in Hardigan's more sophisticated model, however, once the software is available.
"As a geriatric care manager, I can tell you that preventing falls is critical to maintaining someone's quality of life," she said. "The medications someone is taking can give you a good idea of their medical condition."
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