How medical schools are battling stereotypes about elderly patients

Medical schools across the U.S. are implementing programs to introduce students to healthy, active elders in an effort to ensure medical students have an accurate perception of these patients, according to The New York Times.

Five report insights:

1. Ronald Adelman, co-chief of geriatrics at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, developed an annual program where healthy seniors share their perspectives, including a theater piece, after he realized medical students were getting a distorted view of older adults. The program is required for all second-year medical students.

"Unfortunately, most education takes place within the hospital," Dr. Adelman said. "If you're only seeing the hospitalized elderly, you're seeing the debilitated, the physically deteriorating, the demented. It's easy to pick up ageist stereotypes."

2. Ageist stereotypes can influence how physicians provide care. One patient, 88-year-old Marcia Levine, told students about a gastroenterologist who dismissed her complaints of fatigue by saying, "At your age, you can't expect to have much energy."

After switching physicians, Ms. Levine learned she had a low-grade infection.

3. At least 20 U.S. medical schools are making similar efforts to introduce students to active and healthy elders, said Amit Shah, MD, a geriatrician who helps direct the Senior Sages program at the Mayo Clinic School of Medicine in Rochester, Minn.

4. The programs vary in form, from Weill Cornell's two-hour introduction to a semester-long curriculum at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill.

Schools, including the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, match students with older patients whom they follow throughout their four-year educations. The students make home visits, join their senior mentors on medical appointments and visit them if they become hospitalized.

5. These efforts can be voluntary or mandatory and can emphasize clinical skills or encourage new perspectives. Although there are relatively few of these initiatives in U.S. medical schools, leaders can consider launching these programs, as they are inexpensive, and older patients are enthusiastic about participating.

One patient who participated in Weill Cornell's program said she appreciated that the students had listened, calling the session "a gift to us, as well as to them. It's an acknowledgment that we are important and of interest."

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