This is the first of a series of blogs drawing on a study of training for those working in frailty care, with additional reflections from other work.
What is frailty?
Before looking at training in frailty care, it would be helpful to understand something about what frailty is. Descriptions of frailty will almost always refer to the complexity of the condition. But what makes frailty different to other conditions that could be described as complex? We might think perhaps of multiple sclerosis, in which the patient may experience a range of clinical conditions and in which physical, psychological and social factors need to be taken into account. The same can be said for patients diagnosed as frail. Well, in a recent study, our participants considered that the complexity of frailty; how two patients could have such a wide disparity of signs, symptoms and needs; its evolving nature; its acute susceptibility to interventions or to the lack of them, and the high number of professions, sectors and organisations necessary to carrying out effective frailty care, were sufficient reasons for it to stand apart.
This series of blogs draws largely upon an evaluation of the training elements of four very different initiatives to develop frailty care pathways. Two significant themes stood out in this study. Firstly, the high level of staff commitment to looking for ways of enhancing the care provided to patients diagnosed as frail. Secondly, their agreement on the extremely broad and nebulous nature of the concept of frailty. While the various tools and checklists available were helpful in identifying frail patients, all agreed that it was difficult to find a comprehensive definition of frailty that conveyed its real meaning; one patient diagnosed as frail could present quite differently to another. The term could concern age, a single clinical condition or comorbidities, and a range of individual circumstances. As one of the study participants commented:
‘Not everybody who is elderly is diagnosed with frailty and not everybody who is living with frailty is elderly. The problem is that frailty is not a fixed population and it’s not synonymous with age, so it’s a very variable thing, so people can move from one (level of) frailty to another.’
Others noted the wide range of clinical conditions that could be encountered under the umbrella of frailty, with one sometimes feeling ‘overwhelmed’ with all that was to be learned and taken into account when caring for these patients.
In a further discussion, participants commented that the level of complexity was only revealed when actually working with frail patients; regardless of any formal training or self-directed study carried out beforehand, appreciating the complexities could only be appreciated by active involvement in providing care:‘…you’ve got to live it a little bit to understand it.’ The health care professionals felt that they each interpreted frailty in their own individual ways and that it was necessary to understand how others viewed it and the skills and services each profession contributed in order to develop a more meaningful understanding and to enhance the care they provided.
To add to the complexity, there is the issue of the stigma associated with the term frailty. Health care professionals, of course, need a name, a diagnosis, to know what is being dealt with and to develop a care plan. But patients and others, including healthcare professionals themselves, can associate ‘frailty’ with age, infirmity and loss of mental acuity, and patients can find it difficult to come to terms with being classified as such.
One patient fought hard against being labelled ‘disabled’, even though he was wheelchair dependent, used a Disability Parking Permit and needed assistance with all personal care and daily living. He preferred to be referred to by his name or as a person with Parkinson’s disease. When later hearing himself referred to as frail, he immediately retorted ‘I’m not frail I’m disabled.’
These are just a handful of the frailty issues that participants discussed and it is interesting to note that they rarely mentioned any particular clinical conditions involved in frailty or offered a definition. Their concerns were focused on addressing complexity rather than specific clinical conditions. Yes, the clinical conditions were important, but they were clearly being viewed within the bigger picture of a system or process of frailty, rather than a discrete event in a patient’s clinical life.
Looking back to our initial question, ‘What is frailty?’, these blogs do not aim to provide the answer but present some of the components of frailty, its complexity and multi-faceted nature, defying comprehensive definition, that were important to those taking part in our study. These elements had a significant impact on how they perceived the training they received for their roles within the new initiatives and their future training requirements.
This was the central focus of our evaluation and, having set the scene for the context of the study, our next blog will provide a brief overview of the initiatives and reflect upon our findings relating to the various approaches to training, preferred methods and why they were thought to be appropriate for training within the speciality of frailty.