Characteristics and outcomes of older patients presenting to the emergency department after a fall: a retrospective analysis

Anthony J Bell, Janet K Talbot-Stern and Annemarie Hennessy
Med J Aust 2000; 173 (4): 179-182.
Published online: 21 August 2000

Characteristics and outcomes of older patients presenting to the emergency department after a fall: a retrospective analysis

Anthony J Bell, Janet K Talbot-Stern and Annemarie Hennessy

MJA 2000; 173: 179-182
For editorial comment, see Close & Glucksman

Abstract - Methods - Results - Discussion - References - Authors' details
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Abstract Objectives: To study older patients presenting to the emergency department after a fall -- factors associated with the fall, injuries sustained and outcome.
Design: A retrospective analysis using the Emergency Department Information System (EDIS), the Trauma Registry and the patient information database (CCIS), in addition to the patient's emergency and inpatient medical records.
Setting: Emergency department of a major inner city teaching hospital, 1 June - 30 November 1997.
Patients: All patients over 65 years presenting to the emergency department (ED) after a fall, for whom complete medical records were available.
Results: Of 803 patients over 65 years presenting to the ED after a fall, complete records were available for 733 (91.3%) (283 men and 450 women). Extrinsic (accidental) causes were implicated in more than a third of falls (313 patients [42.7%]). A high proportion of the patients were living at home (520; 70.9%) and walking unaided (389; 53.1%). Although absolute numbers of women increased with age, men were as likely as women to present after a fall. Many patients had fallen before -- 39% of the men (111/283) and 24% of the women (110/450). In 78 patients (10.6%), alcohol misuse may have been a direct cause of the fall. The overall injury rate was 70.5% (517/733 patients), the most common injury being an isolated fracture (269/517 patients; 52.0%). In all, 419 patients (57.2%) were admitted to hospital, 48% (200/419) with a fracture and 52% (219/419) for investigation of the medical cause of the fall. The median length of hospital stay was 6 days (mean, 10.4 days; range, 1-129 days); 35% (146/419) of patients were in hospital for more than 10 days.
Conclusion: Older patients presenting to the ED after a fall had high injury rates, high admission rates and often prolonged hospitalisation. About a third had fallen before. Patients at risk can be identified in the ED and referred to falls prevention programs.

Census data for 1996 show that 12.1% of Australians are aged 65 years or over.1 This proportion is expected to double in the next 40 years,2 with major implications for healthcare costs. Alone, the cost of falls in patients over 70 years in Australia was estimated to be $398 million in 1989.3

In the United States, trauma causes a considerable proportion of presentations (and subsequent hospital admissions) of older patients. Falls account for most of these presentations.4 The annual incidence of all falls increases from 25% at age 70 years to 35% after the age of 75; the risk increases with age and is higher among those living in long-stay institutions.5 Up to 10%-15% of falls result in serious injury, of which at least half are fractures. Even falls not resulting in injury may have serious psychological consequences.5,6 The "postfall anxiety syndrome"7 and fear of falling leads to decreased activity,8 and ultimately an increased risk of future falls.9 Patients have reported continued disability two months after a fall.10

No Australian report has been published specifically about patients in this age group presenting to the emergency department (ED) after falls, although previous studies have looked at older people presenting to the ED.11,12 Our aim was therefore to focus on patients over 65 years who presented to our ED as a result of a fall. Several features were of interest: why the patients fell; what, if any, injuries were sustained; what proportion of patients required admission to hospital; and what morbidity and mortality resulted from the fall.

Methods Royal Prince Alfred Hospital is a 700-bed tertiary referral centre with 60 000 admissions and 45 000 ED attendances per year. A retrospective review of attendances for the six-month period June - November 1997 was undertaken. All older patients who had fallen were eligible for the study.

Patient data
Data were obtained from the sources below and thereafter patients remained anonymous.

  • EDIS: Patients eligible for the study were identified by a search of the EDIS (Emergency Department Information System) for "falls" in the age group chosen. EDIS is a computerised database in the ED with demographic information, presenting complaint, diagnosis and disposition for each patient.

  • Medical records: A predetermined dataset was recorded from the medical record for each patient presenting to the ED. This included medical record number, age, sex, type of residence (home, hostel or nursing home), prefall mobility, nature of fall, alcohol misuse, recurrent fall, referral status, triage category, injury score, specific area of the body injured, fracture, admission, specialty, length of stay, mortality, and discharge disposition. Prefall mobility was further defined as unaided versus aided (use of a stick, frame, crutches, assistance by another person) versus unknown.

  • Trauma Registry: Additional data were obtained from the hospital's Trauma Registry. An Injury Severity Score (ISS) is calculated for patients requiring admission after trauma. ISS is the sum of the squares of the highest Abbreviated Injury Scores (an anatomical system classifying injuries by body region on a scale of 1 [minor] to 6 [serious]) for the three most seriously injured body regions. ISS ranges from 1 (minor injury) to 75 (severe injury).13

  • CCIS: For patients transferred to an affiliated geriatric and rehabilitation hospital, the patient information database (CCIS [Central Sydney Area Health Service Clinical Information System]) was accessed for the length of stay. None of the patients in our study were transferred to non-affiliated geriatric and rehabilitation hospitals.

  • Population data: The Australian Bureau of Statistics supplied population data for the hospital's catchment area.14

  • Fall: "Inadvertently coming to rest on the ground or other lower level with or without loss of consciousness."15

  • Extrinsic (accidental) causes: Environmental factors (eg, rugs, steps, uneven floors). Falls as a result of external trauma, such as motor vehicle accidents and violence, were excluded.

  • Intrinsic (non-accidental) causes: Syncope, dizziness or vertigo, postural drop, central nervous system lesion (haemorrhage or infarct), drop attack, and balance or gait disturbance.

  • Alcohol misuse: A history of alcohol misuse related temporally to the event, a record of alcohol on the breath, or a statement in the ED record about the patient's being intoxicated.

Statistical analysis
We used Minitab Statistical Software16 for statistical analysis and performed χ2 tests. Analysis was based on age group or sex and compared with a number of variables: presentation as a result of a fall, nature of the fall, outcome of a fracture, and admission status. A multivariate analysis was performed on four aspects of the falls considered to be related to place of residence or mobility: extrinsic cause, recurrent falls, fracture/no fracture and admission. Odds ratios (95% CI) were calculated for each of these groups. Multivariate analysis was also used to calculate odds ratios (95% CI) for whether alcohol use contributed to selected outcomes: admission (yes/no), extrinsic or recurrent falls versus other falls, and age under or over 80 years.


Patient characteristics
Of a total of 22 782 patients presenting to the ED during the six-month study period, 4489 (19.7%) were patients older than 65 years and 803 (17.8%) of these patients presented as a direct consequence of a fall. Of these patients, 733 (91.3%) had medical records available for review at the time of analysis and complete for the purposes of the dataset.

  • Age and sex: The average age was 78.6 years (range, 65-101 years) and the median age was 79 years: 263 patients were aged 65-74 years, 279 were 75-84 years and 191 were 85 years or older. Increasing age of the patients was associated with presenting to the ED as a result of a fall (χ2 test for trend, P < 0.001) (Box 1). There were 283 men and 450 women. However, the number of men and women presenting to the ED after a fall reflected the age and sex distribution within the catchment population (Box 2). Thus, men were as likely as women to present as a result of a fall.

  • Residence: At the time of the fall, 83% (211/253) of the 65-74 year olds, 74% (200/269) of the 75-84 year olds and 57% (109/191) of those over 85 years were living in their own homes. Thus, the proportion of those living in either a hostel or a nursing home increased with advancing age. In 20 patients residence could not be classified.

  • Previous falls: 39% of the men (111/283) and 24% of the women (110/450) had fallen before.

  • Mobility: Patients were classified according to mobility: walking aided or unaided. As expected, as the patients aged the use of a walking aid increased.

Cause of fall
  • Extrinsic or intrinsic: Overall, extrinsic causes for the fall accounted for 42.7% of patients presenting to the ED. In the age group 65-74 years extrinsic causes accounted for 49.4% of falls, which is more than expected when compared with the proportion in the older age groups (39.0% and 38.7%, respectively). Intrinsic causes were more likely with advancing age (χ2 test; P = 0.018) and accounted for 50.5% (95% CI, 45%-57%), 60.9% (95% CI, 55%-67%) and 64.2% (95% CI, 54%-68%) of falls in the respective age groups. The breakdown of all causes for falls presenting to the ED is shown in Box 3. Despite extensive review of the medical records we were unable to classify 23% of falls as either extrinsic or intrinsic.

  • Alcohol misuse: This was documented in 78 patients (10.6%): 18% of the 65-74 year olds, 10% of the 75-84 year olds, and was not a factor in those over 85 years (χ2 test; P = 0.001). Sixty-five (83%) of these patients were living in their own homes. Multivariate analysis for alcohol misuse at the time of fall showed it to be significantly associated with an increased risk of both accidental and recurrent falls (Box 4).

  • Injury: 517 (70.5%) patients sustained an injury as a result of the fall: 73.3% (379/517) had an ISS of 4 or less (a score of 9 correlated with a femoral fracture); 13 patients had scores between 15 and 25, with all of these patients (except one with spinal cord compression) sustaining intracranial injury. The most common injuries were fractures (36.7%), soft tissue injuries (16%), lacerations and skin tears (14.5%).

  • Fracture: 269 patients (36.7%) sustained a fracture: 36% (98/269) of which were neck-of-femur fractures, 16% fractured wrists, 12% fractured humeral neck and 5% pelvic fractures. The breakdown of fractures in each group is shown in Box 5. Women sustained both neck-of-femur and all fractures more frequently than men (χ2 test; P < 0.001): 64% (63/98) of femoral-neck fractures and 73% (125/171) of all other fractures (95% CI, 66%-80%). Interestingly, in women, the proportion of fractured neck of femur to all fractures was 33.5% (63/188) (95% CI, 27%-40%), whereas in men it was 43% (35/81) (95% CI, 32%-54%). Fracture rate overall was not found to be related to advancing age in either sex.

  • Admission: The total number of patients admitted to hospital was 419, or 57.2% of all older patients with falls (representing 38% of all older patients admitted during the study period). Sixty-three per cent of those 85 years or older were admitted, compared with 60% of the 75-84 year olds and 50% of the 65-74 year olds (χ2 test; P = 0.009). Of the 269 patients with fractures, 200 (74%) were admitted. There was no statistically significant difference in the fracture admission rate across the age groups (χ2 test; P = 0.53). Of the 200 patients admitted, in 49% the cause of the fracture was intrinsic.

Patients admitted to hospital after a fall had a mean length of stay of 10.4 days (95% CI, 10.2-10.6) and a median stay of 6 days (range, 1-129 days). Hospitalisation for more than 10 days was necessary in 35% (146/419) of patients.

  • Deaths: Thirty-two patients died in hospital, representing 4.4% of all patients presenting to the ED after a fall: half of those who died were over 85 years of age and half were from nursing homes. In those who died, the cause of the fall was intrinsic rather than extrinsic (27/32), and the most common injury was a fracture of the neck of the femur (10/32).

  • Data analysis: Multivariate analysis of place of residence or mobility and extrinsic cause, recurrent falls, fracture/no fracture and admission showed no significant interaction.

Discussion We found that older patients presenting to the ED after a fall had a high injury rate (71%), high admission rates (57%) and often prolonged hospitalisation (> 10 days in about a third of those admitted). Our study complements others performed in Australia and elsewhere on older patients who fall, particularly those who present to an ED.11,12

Some studies have found that women in the community fall more frequently than men,17 and others, as we did, found no difference.18 Institutionalised patients have been reported to have higher fall rates than patients living at home,17,19 but most of our patients lived at home and walked unaided.

Falls may be caused by an environmental hazard alone or a simple syncopal event, or there may be a complex interaction of environment, physical illness, and type of activity. Changes in vision, vestibular function and proprioception affect physical stability, and musculoskeletal changes affect gait. Postural hypotension from dehydration, drug effects or autonomic dysfunction may be involved. Additionally, acute illness such as respiratory tract infection, arrhythmias, carotid sinus hypersensitivity,20 cardiac failure and neurological problems (eg, Parkinson's disease) may increase the risk of falling. All these intrinsic factors may be compounded by environmental hazards.5,6,17 We found gait disturbance, syncope, central nervous system lesion, postural hypotension and dizziness to be the most common intrinsic causes, and these were statistically more likely to be the underlying reason for a fall as age increased.

The proportion of patients with falls in association with alcohol misuse contrasts with the findings of Adams et al.21 They surveyed older patients over an eight-week period for alcohol use, and found a negative relationship between alcohol use and falls. A high proportion of our patients with alcohol misuse lived at home, with perhaps easy access to alcohol. These patients had a greater risk of extrinsic and recurrent falls, a potential relationship that warrants further study.

A UK study found that most falls in the community do not result in serious injury.17 We found that patients presenting to the ED after a fall have a high rate of injuries, consistent with previous reports,17,22 but the rate was significantly higher than that found by Tinetti et al.23

We found women to be statistically more likely to suffer a fracture than men. Grisso et al,10 in an older inner-city population in the United States, found that women generally had higher rates of fall injury than men. In addition, they found that injury rates increased with advancing age, a finding that we could not confirm.

There were fewer hip fractures in older men than older women in our study, confirming previous findings.24 This is probably related to the higher prevalence of osteoporosis in women. Previous reports have shown that older men with hip fracture have higher mortality rates than age-matched women.23

The high admission rate in our study, which increased in older patients, is only slightly higher than that found by Richardson,11 but this was in patients over 75 years, in whom a higher admission rate is expected. A UK study found admission was needed in only 34% of patients.22 Admission rates for patients with a fracture did not vary significantly across our three age groups, nor were they different according to place of residence or prefall mobility. Length of hospital stay similarly did not depend on place of residence or prefall mobility, differing from the Richardson study, in which a significant relationship was found between accommodation status and outcome at 90 days.11

US studies report that 75% of deaths after a fall occur in patients over 65 years.6 We found that the single most important factor associated with death was hip fracture, a finding similar to that in previous studies.7,11

Modification of the environment and dealing with intrinsic problems such as drug side effects and gait dysfunction can reduce falls,25-27 prevent hospitalisation26 and shorten length of stay.15 If 95% of problems can be identified from the history and physical examination alone, as suggested by Rubenstein et al,15 the emergency physician is well able to identify those patients at risk of further falls. Intrinsic causes can be treated and the patient's general practitioner or specific falls prevention programs can then proceed to modify the risk of recurrence.

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(Received 10 Aug 1999, accepted 29 May 2000)

Authors' details
Department of Emergency Medicine, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, NSW.
Anthony J Bell, MB BS, Emergency Medicine Registrar.
Janet K Talbot-Stern, MD, FACEM, FACEP, Director, Emergency Department; and Clinical Senior Lecturer, Department of Surgery, University of Sydney.

Department of Medicine, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW.
Annemarie Hennessy, MB BS, PhD, Senior Lecturer.

Reprints will not be available from the authors.
Correspondence: Dr A J Bell, Department of Emergency Medicine, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Missenden Road, Camperdown, NSW 2050.

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1: Patients presenting to the emergency department, by age group, June - November, 1997
65-74 years (n=2060) 75-84 years (n=1672) ≥85 years (n=757) Total (n=4489)

Presentation after a fall
Other presentations

295 (14.3%)

317 (19.0%)
191 (25.2%)
803 (17.9%)

χ2 test for age trend (P<0.001).
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2: Age and sex distribution of patients presenting to the emergency department after a fall compared with the catchment population
65-74 years 75-84 years ≥85 years

Presentation after a fall
Proportion of catchment
124/263 (47%)

15415/32185 (47.9%)
107/279 (38%)

7251/18448 (39.3%)
52/191 (27%)

1650/6038 (27.3%)
Presentation after a fall
Proportion of catchment
139/263 (53%)

15770/32185 (49.0%)
172/279 (62%)

11187/18448 (60.6%)
139/191 (73%)

4388/6038 (72.7%)
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Box 3
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4: Multivariate analysis (logistic regression) of alcohol misuse and selected variables in older patients presenting to the emergency department after a fall
Variable Alcohol misuse odds ratio (95% CI)

Age at presentation 5.5 (2.8-10.6)
Extrinsic cause of fall 1.72 (1.05-2.83)
Recurrent falls 2.24 (1.35-3.72)
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5: Fractures in older patients presenting to the emergency department after a fall, by age group (years)
Fracture 65-74 (n=263) 74-85 (n=279) >85 (n=191) Total (n=733)

Neck of femur 28 (11%) 37 (13%) 33 (17%) 98 (13.4%)
Other 74 (28%) 59 (21%) 38 (20%) 171 (23.3%)
No fracture 161 (61%) 183 (66%) 120 (63%) 464 (63.3%)
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Received 19 April 2024, accepted 19 April 2024

  • Anthony J Bell
  • Janet K Talbot-Stern
  • Annemarie Hennessy



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