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Not all is lost: functional recovery in older adults following emergency general surgery

Guttman MP, Tillmann BW, Nathens AB, Bronskill SE, Saskin R, Huang A, Haas B. J Trauma Acute Care Surg. 2022; 93(1):66-73. Epub 2022 Mar 22. DOI:

Background — Although functional decline and death are common long-term outcomes among older adults following emergency general surgery (EGS), we hypothesized that patients’ post-discharge function may wax and wane over time. Periods of fluctuation in function may represent opportunities to intervene to prevent further decline. Our objective was to describe the functional trajectories of older adults following EGS admission.

Methods — This was a population-based retrospective cohort study of all independent, community-dwelling older adults (age ≥ 65) in Ontario with an EGS admission (2006-2016). A multistate model was used to examine patients’ functional trajectories over the five years following discharge. Patients were followed as they transitioned back and forth between functional independence, use of chronic home care (in-home assistance for personal care, homemaking, or medical care for at least 90 days), nursing home admission, and death.

Results — We identified 78,820 older adults with an EGS admission (mean age 77, 53% female). In the 5 years following admission, 32% (n = 24,928) required new chronic home care, 21% (n = 5,249) of whom had two or more episodes of chronic home care separated by periods of independence. The average time spent in chronic home care was 11 months, and 50% (n = 12,679) of chronic home care episodes ended with a return to independence. For patients requiring chronic home care at any time, the probability of returning to independent living over the subsequent five years ranged from 36-43% annually.

Conclusions — Not all is lost for older adults who experience functional decline following EGS admission. Half of those who require chronic home care will recover to independence, and one-third will have a durable recovery, remaining independent after five years. Fluctuations in function in the years following EGS may represent a unique opportunity for interventions to promote rehabilitation and recovery among older adults.

Level of Evidence — Level III, epidemiological