When someone has trouble breathing in an emergency situation, doctors often employ intubation, a method of helping patients to breathe by inserting a tube down their throat and connecting them to a ventilator to help or replace the process of breathing. Because of its function, many people think of intubation as a miracle procedure — or at least one that works well. It’s supposed to help keep people in serious, painful conditions alive. But, especially for elderly and geriatric patients, that might not be the case.
For an elderly patient, whose condition would be easily weakened or changed, the process of intubation can be particularly invasive. Aside from removing the patient’s ability to speak and sedating them, the process also shows the potential of causing damage and danger to the lungs, throat, and other vital bodily functions.
The New York Times published an article about the unknown dangers of intubating elderly patients at hospitals. It shows, through evaluation of different scientific studies, that elderly patients rarely benefit from intubation. Instead, they are at risk for many more complications as well as pain, injury, and even death as a result of those complications.
In realizing the danger intubation poses toward older patients, doctors have looked to methods of “noninvasive ventilation” as alternatives to intubation, which would cause less physical distress to the body. For example, BiPap devices fall under this category, using a mask over the face instead of a tube down the throat to facilitate healthy breathing. It also gives patients better options in terms of communicating and controlling their own faculties, in addition to running a much lower risk of death or extensive treatment after it’s employed.
When it comes to elderly patients, it’s easy to think of them as an exception. If they don’t naturally react well to a process like intubation, any outsider could think their fragility or susceptibility to pain would be unavoidable due to their age or preexisting conditions. On the other side, family members of elderly patients who have to choose whether to allow intubation are likely to believe their loved one will be an exception to the risks involved in the procedure and follow the more dangerous path.
But these patients don’t necessarily have to live with those risks and pains, and their family doesn’t necessarily have to make such a heavily weighted decision. If innovations in noninvasive ventilation continue to come through, many elderly patients and their families will be saved serious heartache.