Aging & Health A to Z
Managing Multiple Health Problems
Basic Facts & Information
Living with Multiple Health Problems - A Common Situation for Older Adults
Many older adults have more than one health problem. In fact, more than half of all adults 65 and older have three or more ongoing health problems. Heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, or high blood pressure are some examples of these health problems
Taking care of older adults with multiple health problems can be tricky, even for healthcare professionals who specialize in caring for older adults. Having multiple health problems can mean you take several medications that may interact with one another in potentially harmful ways. Also, most clinical guidelines for healthcare providers focus on how to manage a single disease or condition, instead of how to manage multiple health problems. In addition, older adults with multiple health problems are often not included in medical research studies to test new drugs and other treatments. This means that there is less information (often called “evidence”) about how drugs and other treatments affect people with multiple conditions.
Guiding Principles on Caring for Older Adults with Multiple Health Problems
To help healthcare professionals better care for older adults with multiple health problems, the American Geriatrics Society has developed a set of guiding principles for clinicians, which include five essential elements of quality care for older adults with multiple health problems.
- Considering patient preferences: The clinician should help patients, and sometimes their family or friends, understand their care options and choices. Once they understand these options, the patient and healthcare provider should work together to make decisions that are in line with the patient’s preferences. Although many patients may choose to make decisions on their own, many will want to include others—such as providers, family, friends, or other caregivers—in decisions.
- Considering available medical research: Healthcare providers need to look at the available research to be sure a given treatment approach is suitable for a specific patient. The healthcare provider should also understand how much uncertainty there is about whether the approach is likely to work for older adults with multiple health conditions. When deciding which treatments to choose, professionals and patients should focus on the outcomes that are most important to the patient.
- Making treatment decisions based on possible risks, benefits and prognosis: When possible, clinicians should discuss with the patient what is likely to happen—both with and without each available treatment. Among other things, healthcare providers should try to determine, and share with the patient, how long it will likely take to benefit from certain treatments. All of this is useful information for patients who are deciding which treatments are more important to them, and which are less important.
- Assessing treatment options: Healthcare providers should keep in mind that older patients are more likely to stop following treatments if they are too complicated, confusing, or burdensome.
- Optimizing treatments and care plans: Healthcare professionals should try to maximize benefits and minimize risks from treatments within an overall treatment plan. Among other things, they should prescribe non-drug treatments whenever appropriate to reduce potentially harmful drug interactions and other side effects.
Each of the principles above is intended to help improve the health care of older adults with multiple health problems. They keep in mind that each patient is unique, and their preferences will vary.
What You Can Do
- Click on the Tools and Tips section to your left to find some great tips on how to live with multiple health problems and how to work with your healthcare provider in making decisions about your care.
- If you are an older adult with complex health problems and care needs, you may want to consider seeing a specialist in geriatric care. Click here to learn more about geriatric care.
- Click here to search for a list of geriatrics healthcare professionals in your geographic area.
This summary is from a report entitled Patient-Centered Care for Older Adults with Multiple Health Problems: A Stepwise Approach from the American Geriatrics Society. It is published in the September 19, 2012 early online edition of the American Geriatrics Society.
Updated: September 2012
Posted: September 2012