Among the elderly, a fall often causes a major medical crisis that affects both the patient’s health and quality of life. In fact, falls are the main cause of accidents in people over the age of 65, as well as the No. 1 cause of serious injury and death.
In many cases, these falls can be prevented, sparing the elderly and their families from both trauma and expense. This is the focus of a $340,000 grant that will fund a year-long effort by Lake Region Healthcare and five healthcare partners to develop and implement an intervention program to help prevent falls and to assist health care professionals in reducing the risks of falls by the elderly throughout Otter Tail County.
The goal ultimately is to create a falls prevention program that could be used as a model in other counties throughout Minnesota.
"We often think the leading cause of death is heart disease, but morbidity is more related to falls. Of the elderly who fall and sustain a hip fracture, half are never able to live independently again," said Diane Thorson, director of the Otter Tail County Public Health Department. "We try to avoid them having falls in the first place."
An existing falls prevention program opened the door to the $340,000 Rural Health and Safety Education Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to Dr. Todd Johnson, director of clinical pharmacy at Lake Region Healthcare. That program, called the Inter-professional Falls Prevention & Education Program, has been in existence for almost two years and was funded by a grant from the Academic Health Center at the University of Minnesota, where Johnson is also an assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy.
He oversees this program, which links medical professionals (often Otter Tail County public health nurses) and health care students in pharmacy, medicine, nursing, physical therapy and other disciplines to create assessment teams. These teams visit elderly patients to assess the risk of falls in their homes and make suggestions to lower the risks. Referrals to the teams typically come from physicians, family members or public health or home care staff,
The team’s recommendations for each patient are presented to a Falls Committee and also shared with each patient, along with his or her family members and primary health care provider.
Preventing a fall can be as simple as moving rugs, installing safety bars, improving nutrition and strength, or adjusting a medication or dose to minimize light-headedness, dizziness, balance issues or lethargy.
"Encouraging people to be active by simply walking around their home for 10 minutes three times a day and making simple changes in their home environment can help to prevent falls and injuries," Thorson said.
Based on the success of this interdisciplinary program, Lake Region and its partners in the Otter Tail County Healthy Aging Collaborative were encouraged to apply earlier this year for the federal Rural Health and Safety Education Grant.
Working with Lake Region Healthcare are the Central Minnesota Area Health Education Center, the University of Minnesota Extension Health and Nutrition Program, the University of Minnesota Center on Aging and the Geriatric Education Center, and the Minnesota Board on Aging and Area Agencies on Aging.
"This grant is really a feather in the cap for us in Fergus Falls and is a testament to the great health care workers we have in our community, and to the collaborations we have developed," Johnson said. "With all of these people working together, we feel strongly that we can have a positive impact on reducing falls and the adverse outcomes that follow."
Laurissa Stigen is the executive director of the Central Minnesota AHEC, one of several Minnesota AHECs that work to strengthen the healthcare workforce in rural areas of the state.
"The impact this program can have is vast," Stigen said. "The benefits of decreasing falls by raising awareness of their impact on one’s quality of life and health care costs is obvious. I also think it will be exciting to see the outcome when health profession students from different disciplines work together with local health care providers."
She said the $340,000 grant will focus on hiring a coordinator to expand the existing Inter-professional Program, collecting and tracking data, providing nutrition and fitness training related to falls, and creating awareness about falls through marketing and a community health fair.
The grant was awarded effective Oct. 1.