Deaths from falls have increased 31 percent for adults age 65 and older between 2007 and 2016. One out of every five falls results in a serious injury. It’s more important than ever that people know how their health care provider can help them lower their fall risk and are prepared to start that conversation themselves. This is especially true for anyone who has fallen recently, feels unsteady or dizzy, takes many medications or who has other chronic conditions, like diabetes or depression.
There are some things that individuals and their family members can do around the house, such as installing grab bars and railings, removing tripping hazards like rugs, and buying shoes with good traction. However, the provider-patient relationship is a crucial part of reducing risks for falls. Physicians and nurses can assess specific risk factors and work with the patient to reduce them.
Work by Lesly Barcena, DNP, RN, a recent graduate of the UW School of Nursing Doctoral of Nursing Practice program, found that out of 29 patients in a cancer clinic whose answers to screening questions indicated they might be a fall risk, only eight had a note in their chart from their physician saying they had followed up. Her project earned her the de Tornyay Center for Healthy Aging’s Pathways to Healthy Aging award, and ties into other research showing that physicians aren’t consistently assessing fall risks for high-risk patients. The work highlights the fact that patients need to feel comfortable bringing up falls and asking for risk assessments from their physician, when physicians might not.
Health care practitioners can test for conditions like vitamin D deficiency; foot, ankle, and vision problems; and low blood pressure, all of which can make someone more likely to fall. Based on the patient’s balance, gait, and strength, they can refer the patient to physical therapy when appropriate or suggest exercises to improve balance and strength, such as tai chi and Tai Ji Quan (see photo at top). If a walking aid would be helpful, physicians or nurses can work with the patient to recommend the best type and size.
Patients worried about falls should also ask their health care provider to review their medications, including non-prescription over-the-counter supplements. Some medications can contribute to fall risks, with side effects like lightheadedness or exhaustion. Physicians or nurse practitioners may be able to suggest ways to mitigate the side effects or find alternatives.
Falls can be deadly, so it’s important to address them before they result in any injury. While there are some steps individuals can take to protect themselves, working with their health care provider is an essential part of fall prevention.
Contributor Paige Bartlett is a public information specialist at UW School of Nursing’s de Tornyay Center for Healthy Aging. For more information about the center, go to agingcenter.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo at top by Claire Petersky shows two participants in a Tai Ji Quan: Moving for Better Balance® class at Wallingford Community Senior Center. The photo won first place in the 2018 National Council on Aging Falls Prevention Photo Contest (accessed 8/21/19 at https://bit.ly/2Zm6pME).