SUDDEN CONFUSION – GO TO EMERGENCY ROOM

While it is easily seen when a person has a dramatic change in consciousness and they are in a stupor or coma, delirium is not that easy to identify. The emergency department is usually the point of entry into the hospital for the confused elder. The ER runs at a high speed and it is necessary for an accurate diagnosis for the patient’s family or friends to give a good history.

Patients in a deep sleep or stupor, who can only be aroused with extreme physical stimulation are in a medical emergency. The emergency room personnel assume that the person is not always so difficult to arouse, and they recognize the emergency. However identifying changes in a patient with delirium is much more difficult because the hospital staff do not know how the patient usually is. This puts the burden of communicating the emergency situation on the accompanying family member.

It is estimated that ER physicians miss the diagnosis of delirium in 57 to 83% of cases. This wastes valuable time for the patient, time that they need for early intervention. This missed diagnosis can be due to the fact that the elder themselves do not know why they have come to the hospital. Or if the elderly person is agitated they may even be admitted to the psychiatric ward, without a good assessment.

Giving a good mental history:

  • when did you first notice a change in mental function?
  • do these changes seem to come and go – get worse or better over time
  • does the person have problems paying attention – give an example of what is normal for this person and how they are now not acting normally – having difficulty carrying on a conversation – getting distracted and changing the subject
  • patients who are inattentive may actually fall asleep when they are not engaged in conversation, this change in sleep/awake patterns needs to be stated
  • the patient now has rambling thoughts and disorganized thinking
  • if the patient has had any recent falls, this is a very important piece of information and will help the physician in their physical examination – looking for possible head trauma
  • maintain an accurate list of all of the elder’s medications as well as any over the counter medications they are taking – maintaining this list will make it much easier in an emergency situation
  • share with the emergency staff if the elder has a history of alcohol abuse or use of sedatives
  • has the elder ever experienced an episode like this in the past?

Being prepared and ready with this pertinent information is impressive and will more likely get the attention of the emergency personnel than saying “He is just not acting right.”

Virginia Garberding RN

Certified in Gerontology and Restorative Nursing