Background: Elderly people in residential care are among the most infirm in society and are at high risk of developing acute medical problems. There are no Australian data on the use of acute hospital emergency services by this group.
Aim: To determine patterns of use of a major public hospital's Emergency Department (ED) by elderly people living in residential care, their presenting problems and the outcome of attendance.
Methods: Prospective study of 300 consecutive referrals to a teaching hospital's ED involving people aged over 65 years and living in residential care in southern Adelaide, South Australia. Case records were examined and residential care staff were interviewed by telephone when information required clarification. This occurred in 25% of referrals.
Results: The 300 referrals were seen over a three month period and accounted for 2.43% of the 12,371 ED attendances during this period. During this time, at least 4.9% of people in residential care in the region were referred to the ED. The referrals involved 239 residents, 196 (82%) who were referred once only, 32 (13%) twice and 11 (5%) three or more times. Residents had a mean age of 84 years and 70% were female. A broad range of acute medical problems precipitated referral and 61% of people referred were immediately hospitalised. There was no general practitioner (GP) involvement in the management of the presenting illness in 58% of all referrals and in 45% of those where symptoms had been present for over three days.
Conclusions: People living in residential care are frequently referred to an ED service, often bypassing their GP in the process. They present with a wide range of acute medical problems for which most are hospitalised. Strategies that anticipate, prevent and manage health breakdown in residential care and so minimise the need for ED referral should be trialed.