Patient Care

Current Approaches to Measuring Functional Status Among Older Adults in VA Primary Care Clinics

VA primary care clinics had widely varying approaches for assessing and documenting the functional status of geriatric patients.

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The ability to perform activities of daily living (ADLs), commonly called functional status, is central to older adults’ quality of life (QOL) and independence.1,2 Understanding functional status is key to improving outcomes for older adults. In community-dwelling older adults with difficulty performing basic ADLs, practical interventions, including physical and occupational therapy, can improve functioning and prevent functional decline.3,4 Understanding function also is important for delivering patient-centered care, including individualizing cancer screening,5 evaluating how patients will tolerate interventions,6-9 and helping patients and families determine the need for long-term services and supports.

For these reasons, assessing functional status is a cornerstone of geriatrics practice. However, most older adults are cared for in primary care settings where routine measurement of functional status is uncommon.10,11 Although policy leaders have long noted this gap and the obstacle it poses to improving the quality and outcomes of care for older adults, many health care systems have been slow to incorporate measurement of functional status into routine patient care.12-14

Over the past several years, the VA has been a leader in the efforts to address this barrier by implementing routine, standardized measurement of functional status in primary care clinics. Initially, the VA encouraged, but did not require, measurement of functional status among older adults, but the implementation barriers and facilitators were not formally assessed.15 In a postimplementation evaluation, the authors found that a relatively small number of medical centers implemented functional measures. Moreover, the level of implementation seemed to vary across sites. Some sites were collecting complete measures on all eligible older patients, while other sites were collecting measures less consistently.15

As part of a national VA initiative to learn how best to implement standardized functional status measurement, the authors are conducting a qualitative study, including a formal assessment of barriers and facilitators to implementing functional assessments in VA primary care clinics. In the current project, which serves as formative work for this larger ongoing study, the authors identified and described current processes for measuring functional status in VA primary care patient aligned care team (PACT) and Geriatric (GeriPACT) clinics.


A rapid qualitative analysis approach was used, which included semistructured interviews with primary care stakeholders and rapid data analysis to summarize each clinic’s approach to measuring functional status and develop process maps for each clinic (eFigures 1, 2, 3, and 4 ). Interviews and analyses were conducted by a team consisting of a geriatrician clinician-researcher, a medical anthropologist, and a research coordinator. The institutional review boards of the San Francisco VAMC and the University of California, San Francisco approved the study.

Abbreviations: CDW, corporate data warehouse; CPRS, computerized patient record system; LPN, licensed practical nurse; PCP, primary care provider. The vertical axis along the left side of the figure shows the person or department engaged in functional status data assessment or documentation. The horizontal axis along the top of the figure shows the clinic visit time progression from before the patient’s arrival to the end of the patient encounter.

Sampling Strategy

In order to identify VAMCs with varying approaches to assessing functional status in older patients who attended primary care appointments, the study used a criterion sampling approach.16,17 First, national “health factors” data were extracted from the VA Corporate Data Warehouse (CDW). Health factors are patient data collected through screening tools called clinical reminders, which prompt clinic staff and providers to enter data into checkbox-formatted templates. The study then identified medical centers that collected health factors data from patients aged ≥ 65 years (157 of 165 medical centers). A keyword search identified health factors related to the Katz ADL (bathing, dressing, transferring, toileting, and eating), and Lawton Instrumental ADL (IADL) Scale (using the telephone, shopping, preparing food, housekeeping, doing laundry, using transportation, managing medications, and managing finances).18,19 Health factors that were not collected during a primary care appointment were excluded.

Of the original 157 medical centers, 139 met these initial inclusion criteria. Among these 139 medical centers, 66 centers did not collect complete data on these 5 ADLs and 8 IADLs (eg, only ADLs or only IADLs, or only certain ADLs or IADLs).

Two medical centers were selected in each of the following 3 categories: (1) routinely used clinical reminders to collect standardized data on the Katz ADL and the Lawton IADL Scale; (2) routinely used clinical reminders to collect functional status data but collected partial information; and (3) did not use a clinical reminder to collect functional status data. To ensure that these 6 medical centers were geographically representative, the sample included at least 1 site from each of the 5 VA regions: 1 North Atlantic, 1 Southeast, 1 Midwest, 2 Continental (1 from the northern Continental region and 1 from the southern), and 1 Pacific. Three sites that included GeriPACTs also were sampled.

Primary care PACT and GeriPACT members from these 6 medical centers were recruited to participate. These PACT members included individuals who can assess function or use functional status information to inform patient care, including front-line nursing staff (licensed practical nurses [LPNs], and registered nurses [RNs]), primary care providers (medical doctors [MDs] and nurse practitioners [NPs]), and social workers (SWs).

Local bargaining units, nurse managers, and clinic directors provided lists of all clinic staff. All members of each group then received recruitment e-mails. Phone interviews were scheduled with interested participants. In several cases, a snowball sampling approach was used to increase enrollment numbers by asking interview participants to recommend colleagues who might be interested in participating.17


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