School of Medicine

Podcast: Recognizing, caring for dementia patients in the emergency department

As many as 30% of older people who seek emergency medical care are living with some degree of cognitive impairment, but patients are not routinely screened for dementia when seeking care for other reasons in emergency departments. Recognizing the signs of cognitive impairment is essential to providing optimal care, says Christopher Carpenter, MD, a Washington University emergency medicine physician who sees patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. (Photo: Getty Images)

In this episode, we head to the emergency department. Doctors in most emergency departments around the country are dealing with fewer COVID-19-positive patients than before, but they continue to be faced with a different epidemic of sorts: the 20% to 30% of patients with dementia-related cognitive issues who seek emergency care. As the U.S. population ages, it’s more common for emergency physicians to find themselves treating older people who are living with dementia. Further, during the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, such patients were not allowed to have relatives stay with them to help navigate and better understand what is happening during their visits to the emergency department.

While completing his medical training, Christopher Carpenter, MD, a professor of emergency medicine, had a bad emergency department experience involving his grandfather, who was suffering from dementia at the time. For more than two decades since then, Carpenter has looked for ways to make the emergency department experience easier for those who are living with dementia and their family members and caregivers. He is part of a national effort known as the GEAR Network, which stands for Geriatric Emergency Care Applied Research Network. The organization is studying ways to better identify and serve older patients with dementia. Carpenter says it’s essential to improve emergency care for people living with dementia because as the U.S. population continues to age, the number of such people seeking treatment in emergency departments will continue to increase.

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