Tips to offer more friendly medical care for seniors

Photo above: A SingHealth workshop that recreates what it can feel like to be old gets participants to try to pick up 35 cents from the floor while wearing dark glasses, ear-muffs, leg braces and arm splints that impair their mobility.

SINGAPORE - Feedback from patients and their families on the inconveniences they faced at clinics have prompted the launch of a set of guidelines to make the facilities more elderly-friendly.

The guidebook by SingHealth is a first here and was distributed this week to its 17 hospitals, polyclinics and specialist centres.

They are advised to, for example, install enough lights to avoid shadows that can confuse elderly people with blurry vision.

The suggestions even extend to introducing a trolley with water, snacks and magazines - much like a dim sum cart - so that patients do not get bored or hungry while waiting to see the doctor.

On top of that, staff are given tips on how to communicate with the elderly better.

Staff are, for instance, instructed to face them and stoop to their eye level, so that the patients do not feel intimidated.

The book, published by SingHealth with help from non-profit organisation Tsao Foundation, appears timely as Singapore faces an ageing population, with the number of people aged 65 set to triple by 2020.

The guidebook is based on feedback given last year by about 390 patients, their families and health-care staff of eight SingHealth-run centres.

They described problems when seeking medical care at places such as the Singapore General Hospital, National Cancer Centre Singapore and Geylang Polyclinic.

Their top concerns were language, making their way around the facility and the lack of elderly-friendly lifts and toilets.

Patients also said there were too few seats at some places. The many flights of stairs and uneven floors were obstacles as well.

Some suggested having reserved seats for patients in wheelchairs, as well as a canteen nearby for them to get food while waiting to be treated.

SingHealth's director of group service quality Isabel Yong said elderly-friendly features varied across the 17 institutions. They handle almost one million visits from elderly patients every year.

With the new guidelines, service standards can be made more consistent, she added.

"From now on, when we build new facilities, we will be very clear on how to make them more elderly-friendly," she said.

For existing buildings, improvements will be introduced gradually, Ms Yong added.

Some institutions have done so. One of them is the National Heart Centre, which said recently that its new building would cater to the elderly. For instance, it is doing away with stairs or steps for those in wheelchairs so they can move around easily.

The guidelines build on workshops that SingHealth started last year to get its front-line staff to become more sensitive towards the elderly.

The workshop participants - who range from laboratory officers to clinic assistants and therapists - are put through a series of activities to let them experience what it feels like to be old.

Wearing fogged-up glasses, ear-muffs, a leg brace and an arm splint, they are asked to do tasks such as picking a specific amount in coins from the floor.

Ms Yong said SingHealth would require all its 6,000 staff to attend the course - an effort that will last five to six years.

"We are conscious that, for every change we make, staff involvement is important," she said.

Radiation therapist Huang Hui Shan, 27, attended the course earlier this week.

Ms Huang, who works at the National Cancer Centre, said: "Now that I understand how they may be feeling at their age, I will see how I can help them further."

Patients' main concerns

Patients' main concerns

Here are some concerns raised by patients last year in a SingHealth survey covering 390 people across eight health-care facilities.

• Language

"I speak only Hokkien. I don't understand what the lady is saying in English."

• Lack of signs

"I'm not sure where to go. Can the clinic put up some signs to guide me?"

• Wheelchair-unfriendly environment

"I'm in a wheelchair. At the pharmacy, the medicine and payment counter is so high, I can't even see the counter-top."

• Intimidating staff

"The doctor and nurse were very impatient with me. I wanted to ask more questions but they made me feel scared and very small."

• Confusing queue system

"Sometimes I don't know if it's my turn yet because the queue numbers jump around - it's confusing."

• Inaccessible

"I can't afford to take a taxi to the clinic. But I find it hard to walk to the bus stop with my walking stick."

• Medicine labels

"The instructions for the medicine are written only in English and are so small. Please write it in Chinese and make it bigger so I can read it."

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