New move to help seniors at risk of falls
EVERY 32 minutes, an elderly person turns up at a public hospital's emergency department because of an injury from a fall. Each month, about 100 seniors find themselves in hospital, staying a week or more because of such an injury.
It is a problem that will only get worse in the coming decade as the population ages, leading to higher healthcare costs and lower quality of life for those affected, said Gwenda Fong, director (successful ageing) in the Ministry of Health's (MOH's) Ageing Planning Office.
In an effort to curb it, the MOH, together with Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH), is starting a year-long pilot this week to assess the risk of falls for all seniors living in the north.
Anyone judged to be at high or moderate risk will be referred to the experts, such as a doctor or therapist, who will work with the individual to reduce it.
The pilot will be improved if necessary and rolled out eventually to the whole country.
One of the most serious consequences of falls that healthcare professionals are hoping to prevent is hip fracture, for which recovery time can be up to 18 months.
Only half will recover fully while one in four "will completely lose their independence", said Mallya Jagadish Ullal, a senior geriatric consultant at KTPH.
The number of hip fractures among people aged 50 and older treated at public hospitals has gone up, from 1,900 in 2004 to 2,500 last year. About half of them are seniors aged 80 years or more.
Though not in that age group, Christine Morton, 66, has had two serious falls in the past two years.
The first time, in 2013, a man distracted by a mobile-phone conversation bumped into her, sending her crashing to the ground. She fractured her left hip and used a wheelchair for a spell.
Then in March this year, a cleaner at the foodcourt where she works ran into her with a trolley full of dirty dishes. Standing at just over 1.5m and weighing 36kg, Madam Morton was thrown to the ground.
This time, the fall caused several fractures to her right hip. She still suffers from pain.
She is now terrified of crowds and moves even more slowly than before. Two weeks ago, she returned to her job as a cleaner in the foodcourt at Ang Mo Kio hub, but with lighter duties.
The pilot programme comes on top of existing fall-prevention efforts by the Health Promotion Board and Agency for Integrated Care. The Housing Board also provides subsidised retrofits to make flats more elderly-friendly with slip-resistant toilet and bathroom tiles, and grab bars.
Ms Fong said the new programme builds on these initiatives, but goes further in identifying individuals at risk and working with them through customised programmes.
Dr Mallya said that about 30 to 40 per cent of falls can be prevented.
For example, patients suffering from osteoporosis, such as Madam Morton, can be treated for the brittle bone disease so that even if they fall, they have a lower risk of fractures.
Most falls happen at home, so installing grab bars, removing clutter that is a trip hazard and having adequate lighting can all reduce the risk.