Geriatric Sleuthing: ‘Failure to Thrive’ Diagnosis Masks Real Illnesses

‘Failure to Thrive,’ or a Failure to Look?

Unmasking the Truth: Geriatrics and the ‘Failure to Thrive’ Narrative

Geriatrics, the branch of medicine focusing on health and care of the elderly, has become something of a detective field. Doctors need to carefully examine the effects of chronic conditions, acute injuries, social factors, and the normal process of aging to solve medical mysteries. However, the patience required for this task seems to be waning as the number of certified geriatricians in the United States, now just over 7,000, has been decreasing since 2017.

‘Failure to Thrive’: An Unhelpful Misdiagnosis

Dr. Clara Tsui, a geriatrician at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, British Columbia, criticizes the term “failure to thrive” for short-circuiting the investigative process. She argues that it obstructs doctors from identifying the real cause of a patient’s condition. Just last month, she encountered a case where an 82-year-old man with Alzheimer’s was diagnosed with “failure to thrive”, despite having suffered a head injury that resulted in internal bleeding.

The Detrimental Impact of ‘Failure to Thrive’

The phrase, considered vague, demeaning, and ageist by Dr. Martha Spencer, a colleague of Dr. Tsui, has led to significant delays in patient care. In a study conducted by Dr. Spencer and Dr. Tsui in 2020, it was discovered that elderly patients labeled with ‘failure to thrive’ waited significantly longer to be admitted to a hospital. Once admitted, these patients experienced longer hospital stays, increasing their risk of infection and other complications.

The ‘Failure’ Label: Concealing Treatable Illnesses

The ‘failure’ label tends to overshadow treatable illnesses, leading to unnecessary delays in patient care. This diagnosis can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing doctors to overlook acute illnesses as they may assume that the patient is just another elderly individual on an inevitable path to decline. This mirrors the situation with the term “acopia,” which literally means “not coping” and often leads doctors in the U.K. and Australia to overlook acute conditions.

Conclusion: Time to Rethink ‘Failure to Thrive’?

In summary, the term ‘failure to thrive,’ far from being a legitimate diagnosis, may actually be detrimental to patient care. It is time for the medical community to reassess its use and implications. As the world’s population continues to age, the need for a more nuanced and patient-centered approach to geriatric care has never been more urgent. Ensuring accurate diagnosis and timely treatment can not only improve the quality of life for the elderly but also reduce the strain on healthcare resources.