Caregivers agonizing over the question of whether or not they should accompany an elderly loved one to the doctor often weigh the desire to become more educated about a senior's care with not wanting to unnecessarily step on the toes of the elder or their doctor.

A recently published study, led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, sheds some light on this issue, illuminating some of the habits and outcomes of seniors who visit the doctor with a companion.

Companions common, but not always needed

The study, conducted on Medicare beneficiaries, found that only one-third of elderly people who were accompanied on doctor's visits actually needed their companion to assist them with activities like moving around or going to the bathroom.

The rest didn't need help with much, but still sought the presence of someone they were close to (usually a spouse or adult child) in the exam room . Spouses in particular often went to the doctor together so they didn't have to make a separate trip.

Overall, 9.5 million seniors were found to be visiting the doctor with a medical wingman (or woman).

Shifting the focus

Typically, the emphasis has been placed on discovering ways to improve communication between a doctor and their patient. But, the shift towards the inclusion of caregivers and other companions is an important trend.

According to Jennifer Wolff, PhD, lead author of the study, caregivers who accompany their elderly loved ones to the doctor change the traditional dynamics of the patient-provider relationship.

In a separate analysis of research regarding this topic, Wolff and her colleagues found that visits involving a companion generally lasted 20% (about 5 min) longer, and involved less dialogue between the patient and the doctor, and more dialogue between the companion and the doctor.

The caregiver companion's role in a physician visit is dependent on a variety of factors, including, how cognitively impaired their elderly loved one is, and what their specific health issues are.

Should you stay, or should you go?

In response to the question of whether or not a caregiver should attend the doctor with an elder who is capable of going on their own, Wolff says, "Absolutely." She points out that there is a significant amount of evidence indicating that there are benefits to having a companion sit in on a visit.

Doctor's appointments are often brief and abrupt, leaving a senior with little time to communicate symptoms, ask questions, and comprehend a diagnosis. A caregiver is in the position to help a senior with everything from prepping for a visit, to taking notes, to reminding a senior of a symptom they may have forgotten.

According to Wolff, research indicates that people who are escorted to the doctor by someone else tend to be more satisfied with the overall care and are more likely to remember important information after their visit.

Including the hidden patient

In terms of trying to improve the doctor-caregiver-patient dynamic, Wolff acknowledges that this type of research is still in its infancy. "With the aging of America, this is something where people's experience is ahead of the research."

She calls caregivers the "hidden patient," and feels that there are a variety of initiatives that could help them join in a senior's health care conversation more seamlessly.

Examples of potential initiatives include: educational materials that spilt up care responsibilities into two categories (what the caregiver can do versus what the care recipient should do), and more specific privacy laws that would allow a senior to give their caregiver easier access to their medical information.