Best Practices

A Primary Care Provider’s Guide to Cataract Surgery in the Very Elderly

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Medical Evaluation

For patients who decide to proceed with surgery, it can be helpful to have a medical evaluation by their PCPs to minimize potential complications during surgery. The very elderly may be at increased risk of intraoperative transient hypertension, restlessness, and electrocardiogram abnormalities.5,7,17 Systemic comorbidities that become more prevalent with age, such as diabetes mellitus (DM), hypertension, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and dementia, may adversely impact the risk of sedation and/or general anesthesia. In the VHA, providers also must be aware of combat-related disorders that can confound cataract surgery, such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and claustrophobia.26,27

Anesthesia in cataract surgery ranges from topical to general, and the selection largely rests on patient physical and psychological comfort and cooperation. Often, intracameral (inside the anterior eye) anesthetic is used with topical anesthesia to provide additional comfort.27 Patients who have high levels of anxiety about surgery may not tolerate topical anesthesia alone.28 In these cases, retrobulbar anesthesia may be performed to block all sensation and motility of the eye. IV sedation is performed prior to the retrobulbar injection to calm patients. Although cataract surgery is typically performed with topical or retrobulbar anesthesia (reducing the potential for systemic complications), there are cases in which general anesthesia may be considered.27 Very elderly patients may become confused or disoriented in the operating room (OR), leading to surgical complications and less than optimal outcomes.5 A higher rate of intraoperative “restlessness,” which occurred in patients who had comorbid dementia, and transient hypertension were found in a study on cataract surgery in the very elderly, but well-controlled studies are lacking.5 Dementia can impose problems with intraoperative cooperation, which is vital for successful surgery in patients who undergo topical or local anesthesia. If these potential problems are thought likely preoperatively, light sedation or general anesthesia—in conjunction with input from the patient’s PCP—are options to minimize disruptive behavior in the OR.

Additional features of the VHA population may influence the selection of anesthesia. The VHA has an important educational mission, and retrobulbar anesthesia may be preferred to minimize unpredictable intraoperative behavior in cases where resident surgeons are performing surgery under attending supervision.27,29,30 The prevalence of PTSD among veterans also may impact the selection of anesthesia. Patients with PTSD have displayed greater levels of anxiety and more discomfort, requiring more sedation and longer surgical times compared with that of a control group.28 Ophthalmic comorbidities prevalent among the predominantly older male population in the VHA include the use of α-1 antagonist prostate medications, such as tamsulosin and terazosin. These medications are associated with intraoperative floppy iris syndrome, which can increase case difficulty and prolong operative time.29

Surgery Preparation

Cataract surgery induces minimal physiologic stress since most surgeries are performed under local or topical anesthesia. Unless the preoperative medical history or physical examination detects an active or unattended medical condition that needs to be addressed, preoperative laboratory testing is generally not required.31-33 Current general guidelines for preoperative testing for cataract surgery exist but do not address specific issues facing very elderly patients. The American Academy of Ophthalmology advises against preoperative medical tests for eye surgery unless there are medical indications: an electrocardiogram for patients with a history of heart disease, a blood glucose test for those with DM, and a potassium test for patients who are on diuretics.31 The direct correlation of age with these comorbidities may translate into higher rates of preoperative testing among very elderly patients. In the VHA, 45% of ophthalmology services studied routinely performed preoperative electrocardiography, chemical analysis, and complete blood counts prior to performing cataract surgery.27 Patients who live with chronic bacterial colonization from indwelling catheters, ostomies, or bed sores need to be given instructions for proper hygienic practices to minimize risks of postoperative infection.34

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