Current issues of ACP Journal Club are published in Annals of Internal Medicine


A case-finding and surveillance program reduced death and admissions in older patients

ACP J Club.1993 Mar-Apr;118:33. doi:10.7326/ACPJC-1993-118-2-033

Source Citation

Pathy MS, Bayer A, Harding K, Dibble A. Randomised trial of case finding and surveillance of elderly people at home. Lancet. 1992 Oct 10;340:890-3.



To evaluate the effectiveness of a postal screening questionnaire with selective follow-up and intervention in reducing mortality and morbidity of older persons living at home.


3-year randomized, single-blind, controlled trial.


A general practice in South Wales, United Kingdom.


725 noninstitutionalized patients aged ≥ 65 years (mean age 73 y) registered with a general practice in Cardiff. 47 patients (6%) were lost to follow-up.


369 patients were randomized by household to the intervention group that involved problem identification using an annual self-reporting postal questionnaire to identify changes in functional ability for everyday activities. Patients who reported problems were visited by a nurse, who provided practical advice, health education, and, if needed, a referral to the general practitioner or community services. 356 patients were randomized to the control group, which had no questionnaire and no contact with the study nurse.

Main outcome measures

Mortality, use of hospital and community services, admissions to institutional care, number of contacts with general practitioners, and quality of life.

Main results

Fewer patients in the intervention group died during a 3-year follow-up than did patients in the control group (P = 0.05) (Table). The groups did not differ for number of hospitalizations, but the mean length of stay was shorter among patients aged between 65 and 74 years in the intervention group (11 vs 15 d, 95% CI for the 4 d difference, 2 to 8 d, P < 0.01). Most patients who were admitted to long-term institutional care were ≥ 75 years of age; slightly fewer intervention group patients were institutionalized then were control group patients (8% vs 14%, CI for the 6% difference -0.9 to 13, { P = 0.09}*). The intervention group had fewer home visits by the general practitioner or hospital specialists but had more office visits to the general practitioner when compared with the control group. Quality of life measures (general health status, life satisfaction, and functional incapacity) among 3-year survivors did not differ.


A case-finding and surveillance program for elderly people living at home was effective in reducing mortality, length of hospital stay, number of patients institutionalized, and number of home visits by physicians.

Source of funding: Nuffield Provincial Hospital Trust.

For article reprint: Professor M.S. Pathy, Health Care Research Unit, St. Woolos Hospital, Newport NP9 4SZ, Gwent, England, UK. FAX 44-633-22-1774.

* P value calculated from data in article.

Table. Case-finding and surveillance vs control in older noninstitutionalized patients at 3 months†

Outcome Intervention Control RRR (95% CI) NNT (CI)
Death 18% 24% 25% (0.3 to 43) 17 (8 to 1695)

†Abbreviations defined in Glossary; RRR, NNT and CI calculated from data in article.


Britain, long a pioneer in geriatric care, has out of necessity mastered the art of doing more for less. In the study by Pathy and colleagues, a low-intensity surveillance and home-assessment strategy was used to improve the outcomes for elderly persons living in the community. Surprisingly, their patients did not consume more medical or social services, implying that resources were well matched to actual needs.

Several issues thwart direct extrapolation of these results to the United States. Similar studies in this country have not produced comparable benefit (1, 2). Poor patient targeting (e.g., self-referral of the minimally disabled) and fragmentation of services for the elderly may account for this disparity. Few data are provided on patient characteristics, and, despite randomization, we cannot presume that the groups were comparable in baseline risk. Few details are provided about the process of care; the "black box" approach makes the intervention difficult to replicate.

Despite these caveats, several recommendations can be made. Primary care physicians serving older patients should consider low-cost questionnaires for functional screening (perhaps these can be distributed in the waiting room rather than by mail). Functional decline should be recognized as a strong risk factor for death and morbidity (3). Patients reporting significant functional decline merit thorough evaluation and, if needed, referral to a nurse or social worker with geriatric case-management experience.

Joseph Francis, MD, MPH
University of TennesseeMemphis, Tennessee, USA


1. Epstein AM, Hall JA, Fretwell M, et al. Consultative geriatric assessment for bulatory patients. JAMA. 1990;263:538-44.

2. Weissert WG, Cready CM, Pawelak JE. The past and future of home- and community-based long-term care. Milbank Q. 1988;66:308-88.

3. Reuben DB, Siu AL, Kimpau S. The predictive validity of self-report and performance-based measures of function and health. J Gerontol. 1992;47:M106-10.