"The nature of the illness is the root cause of the problem," said Greg Sachs, M.D., professor of medicine, section chief of geriatrics at the University of Chicago and first author of the study. "Our health care system is oriented toward treatment of acute illness but dementia produces a long, slow, unpredictable decline."
Their study is one of four in the October, 2004 issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine that focus on the expanding role of primary care physicians in the care of patients with chronic and ultimately terminal illness a growing, difficult problem for physicians and for society.
Death used to come quickly, but now it "fades in slowly -- over years or even decades," notes Christopher Callahan, M.D., of the Indiana University Center for Aging Research, in an editorial that ties together the four papers. The pace of death, he adds, "has slowed so suddenly that we seem to have lost our ability to recognize it." As a result, "we find ourselves poorly trained, our systems poorly designed, and our patients and communities poorly equipped."
The Chicago geriatricians list the barriers to optimal care for such patients and suggest ways to get past them. The first hurdle is the unwillingness of physicians and families to think of dementia as a terminal illness. Patients with dementia decline slowly, with long periods of stability punctuated by
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