UB’s Team Alice gives students, providers & public tools they need in order to prevent potentially lethal medical errors in older adults
By the University at Buffalo
The nation’s oldest charitable organization dedicated to improving the lives of older Americans has chosen the University at Buffalo as its partner in an effort to better protect older adults from preventable medical errors.
The National Council on Aging (NCOA) is working with UB faculty to disseminate to the organization’s national audience the message of Team Alice, an interprofessional research, education and advocacy program that’s part of UB’s Center for Successful Aging.
The goal of the collaboration is to educate older adults about the dangers of overmedication and to empower them to actively participate with their health care providers in making medication decisions.
“NCOA is delighted to partner with Team Alice from the University at Buffalo to shed light on the all-too-common problems of medication errors, and inappropriate prescribing for older adults,” said Kathleen Cameron, NCOA senior director, Center for Healthy Aging.
“We are pleased to assist in efforts to educate older adults and their caregivers about how to reduce these problems,” she said. “This important work aligns with NCOA’s belief that every person deserves to age well. Appropriate, effective and safe use of medications is a key to helping older adults maintain well-being and independence.”
Alice’s Story: A Cautionary Tale
Last month, the organization posted “Medication Safety: How Alice’s Story Can Protect Older Adults,” the first of a series of stories and resources that Team Alice is providing to NCOA to empower older adults to help make decisions about which drugs they take. Last week, the organization posted its second Team Alice resource: “Tips When Starting New Prescriptions and Why Creating a List is Important.”
Alice’s story was born out of the tragedy that struck in 2009 when Mary Brennan Taylor lost her mother, Alice, a feisty, otherwise healthy, independent 88-year-old, to preventable medical errors in just six weeks.
Stunned and grief-stricken by her mother’s rapid decline and death, Taylor wanted to build awareness of the problem and to try and spark change in both health care culture and policy.
She began sharing Alice’s story in 2011 with UB students at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the School of Nursing. Soon, she was also sharing the story with more UB students in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences and the School of Public Health and Health Professions.
To date, she has shared the story with literally thousands of health sciences students at UB and other colleges so that when they start their careers, they are well aware of the problem of medical errors and how to prevent them.
“Since 2011, when UB’s health sciences students first heard Alice’s story, they have embraced its message about preventing medication-related harm, especially in older adults,” said Allison Brashear, M.D., vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School. “We are proud that our faculty from across the health sciences are working to further Team Alice’s mission through interdisciplinary research, interprofessional education and advocacy for changes in policy and our health care system.”
Taylor noted Team Alice “literally never would have happened had the UB medical school not embraced the message of Alice’s story and made it a mandatory part of the third-year clerkship.”
In over a decade of working with all of the health sciences schools at UB, Taylor has seen Alice’s story open the eyes of tomorrow’s health care workers. She has been invited to speak at national meetings of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as with national media.
“Alice’s story is a story that hits a nerve,” said Taylor, adjunct assistant professor in the department of family medicine in the Jacobs School. “Over and over, people who hear it have said, ‘OMG, that happened to my mother or father.’ ”
That recognition only reinforces Taylor’s determination to keep sharing it, which Team Alice does through events at local senior centers and through short videos that the UB team developed with funding from the RRF Foundation for Aging.
Ranjit Singh, M.D., vice-chair for research, department of family medicine and a physician with UBMD Family Medicine, co-leads Team Alice along with Robert G. Wahler, Pharm.D., clinical associate professor of pharmacy practice. “It’s important to have academic rigor behind our research, but we also need the message to reach the very people who need it, and that’s what the NCOA is doing,” Singh said.
Taylor agreed that partnering with the NCOA, which works with thousands of organizations nationwide, expands the reach of Team Alice’s message exponentially.
“It’s like a dream come true for us to be able to form a partnership with such an incredible organization that reaches the exact audience that needs to hear this message,” Taylor said.
Still Inspiring Students
UB’s health sciences students continue to benefit from Team Alice, a cross-disciplinary effort that focuses on research, education and advocacy.
“We take a uniquely comprehensive approach to preventing medication errors,” said Singh, who added that the project includes faculty from the Jacobs School, the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, the School of Nursing, the School of Public Health and Health Professions and even the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Taylor still gives her talk about a dozen times each year to different groups of UB medical students and nursing students, many of whom continue to be inspired by Alice’s story.
Natalie Tjota, M.D., a Jacobs School graduate now in her second year in UB’s Internal Medicine residency, is one of them. She remembered the impact that Alice’s story had on her when she heard it as a student.
“In medicine, you have the intention to do no harm, but in Alice’s case, you could see the negative effects of polypharmacy (the simultaneous use of numerous medications),” she said. “It made me want to be a part of the team that tries to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Now focusing on geriatrics, Tjota recalls the lessons from Alice’s story and says it stayed with her.
“During my rotations in medical school and residency, we see a lot of the side effects of antipsychotics and anticholinergics, and they can be quite frightening,” she said. “It’s rewarding to be able to take away a medication and see the patient actually get better. Medicine has come so far and we can do so much, but to see a patient get better when we actually do less is pretty incredible.”
Andrew Baumgartner, another Jacobs School alumnus now doing a family medicine residency at UB, began doing research with Team Alice during his very first year at the Jacobs School. He recalled how that experience helped shape his approach to health care and his own specialty.
“Early in medical training, I think most learners assume that health care is infallible,” said Baumgartner, who will be joining the Jacobs School faculty next year. “Over time though, it feels like providing high-quality health care in the modern system is akin to swimming upstream, even for the best professionals. Team Alice gives a voice to that feeling and reminds learners to always look for ways to make positive, systemwide change for the benefit of their patients. The impact of a generation of physicians with an eye towards patient safety is incalculable.”
Taylor can’t think of a better way to honor her mother.
“If you think about how many students have been part of this from the beginning and hopefully have benefitted, taking Alice’s story with them to think differently about aging and prescribing, those things will resonate,” Taylor said. “This is Alice’s legacy.”