Health-related Resources for people with IDD and Their Supporters

Health-related Resources for People with IDD and Their Supporters

By Craig Escudé, MD, FAAFP, FAADM
Published by EP Magazine  |  January 2023

With significant health disparities noted in people with IDD, it is important that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), their supporters, and healthcare providers educate themselves on the different health risks that are more commonly seen in people with IDD and about what can be done to prevent serious complications. Supporters and healthcare providers are often challenged in finding helpful information related to healthcare for people with IDD. As a physician who started practicing in this field in the 1990s, finding clinically relevant information about healthcare for people with IDD was challenging. Fortunately, over the past several years, more resources have been developed that relate specifically to healthcare issues and improving health equity for people with IDD. In this article, you’ll find a listing of websites, tools, and training available to provide information and guidance to you, whether a family member, paid supporter, healthcare provider, or person with IDD.

 

Books

Clinical Pearls in IDD Healthcare provides easy-to-understand and clinically relevant information to clinicians and supporters of people with IDD. The book is centered on “clinical pearls,” which are small bits of free-standing, clinically relevant information based on experience or observation. They are part of the vast domain of experience-based medicine and can be helpful in dealing with clinical problems for which controlled data do not exist.
You will find 1-2 page documents covering 55 health-related conditions commonly seen in people with IDD. Topics include medical causes of adverse behavior, sexuality, quality of life, end-of-life care, dental care, polypharmacy, common preventable cause of illness, aging with IDD, and much more. The guide is used by physicians, supporters, nurses, and family members to gain an understanding of the many health issues that are more common in people with IDD. For family members, it can be helpful for self-education but also as a means to provide concise information to physicians who may appreciate additional clinical details related to IDD healthcare.

Electronic Learning Courses

For clinicians looking to receive additional training in IDD Healthcare, the Curriculum in IDD Healthcare is a web-based Continuing Medical Education-approved eLearning course that teaches the fundamentals of IDD healthcare that were likely not taught in clinical training programs. It’s a 6 module, self-paced course that has been studied and shown to significantly improve clinicians’ clinical confidence in providing healthcare to people with IDD. It’s currently used in medical and nursing schools and by practicing clinicians throughout the United States.

The Fatal Five eLearning courses are excellent programs that teach learners about the top preventable causes of illness and death in people with IDD. The specific topics covered in these 7-module courses include discussions about aspiration, dehydration, seizures, bowel obstruction, sepsis, and gastroesophageal reflux, as well as a discussion on knowing when to act to avoid serious complications. The Fatal Five Fundamentals is geared to teach direct support professionals and family members about these topics. The Fatal Five Advanced course teaches about the same conditions at a more clinical level, which is great for nurses.

 

Websites

Special Olympics has a webpage dedicated to health resources for people with IDD. Topics include Health Promotion, Fitness, Health Smiles (dentistry), and many other health and wellness resources.
The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has an extensive list of IDD health resources for patients, healthcare providers, and researchers. You’ll find general and condition-specific information, including links to related entities such as the Association for University Centers on Disabilities.
The Vanderbilt Kennedy IDD Toolkit is an excellent resource guide for clinicians and others relating to several common genetic conditions often associated with IDD. In addition to general guidance, there is specific guidance for health screening about conditions like Autism, Down Syndrome, Fragile X, Prader-Willi, and other conditions, as well as a number of valuable resources relating to topics such as informed consent, communication, and behavioral health.

Organizations

There are two organizations for healthcare providers that offer resources online and provide educational opportunities at their annual conferences. The American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry focuses on physicians and dentists and the Developmental Disabilities Nurses Association for nurses. Both organizations are excellent resources where providers can enhance their skills and knowledge in providing IDD healthcare and collaborate with others in the field.
Several organizations provide valuable information about specific genetic conditions and syndrome, including the Prader-Willi Syndrome Association, the National Association for Down Syndrome, the National Autism Association, the Autism Society of America, the National Fragile X Foundation, the Angelman Syndrome Foundation, and others. Many of these societies have information tailored to supporters, family members, healthcare providers, and researchers relating to their specific syndrome.

Finding Additional Resources

The internet is filled with resources, but not all are what I’d call “good.” And some contain misinformation or are more based on people’s opinions rather than what is generally considered acceptable and reliable health-related information. When looking for resources, I’d recommend going to websites that are from known entities such as well-known hospital systems, governmental agencies like the CDC and the NIH, or official websites for whatever you are looking for. I also recommend reaching out to people you know in your community to see what resources they recommend. Talk to trusted physicians and nurses or call your local hospital to see if there might recommend a particular resource.

Final Thoughts

I’m sure that there are many excellent resources I have left out. But hopefully, the ones listed here will be useful to many. Educating ourselves about our health and the health of the people we support can help us make better-informed decisions, which can dampen the anxiety and fear we might face when dealing with health challenges.

 

About the author:

Dr. Craig Escudé is a board-certified Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and is the President of IntellectAbility. He has more than 20 years of clinical experience providing medical care for people with IDD and complex medical and mental health conditions serving as medical director of Hudspeth Regional Center in Mississippi for most of that time. While there, he founded DETECT, the Developmental Evaluation, Training, and Educational Consultative Team of Mississippi. He is the author of “Clinical Pearls in IDD Healthcare” and developer of the “Curriculum in IDD Healthcare,” an eLearning course used to train clinicians on the fundamentals of healthcare for people with IDD.

Missed Diagnosis: How Many Times Have You Seen This Happen?

Jerome is 22 years old. He enjoys NASCAR racing, going to the beach, and eating out at restaurants. He works 12 hours per week at a local grocery store and, in his leisure time, likes to watch sports on TV with his dad and brothers. Jerome uses a wheelchair and requires assistance with activities of daily living, including eating, dressing, and bathing. He communicates primarily through gestures, facial expressions, noises, and pictures, using the basic communication device he received in high school. He lives at home with his parents, who are his primary caregivers. He also receives personal care and employment support during the day from a paid supporter named Cecelia.

Cecelia recently approached Jerome’s mother because she has been noticing changes in his behavior over the past several months. Typically upbeat, Jerome has been frowning more and is less interested in activities that used to make him happy. Last week, when asked if he wanted to stop at a local café for lunch, he shook his head to indicate “no,” yelled, and banged his wheelchair. And this week, Jerome used his communication device to indicate “sick” and “stay home” on a workday-something he had never done before.

Jerome’s mother was also seeing subtle changes in Jerome that were concerning. She shared with Cecelia that Jerome was groaning a lot, not sleeping well at night, and seemed to be eating less than usual at mealtimes. He recently yelled at his brother and purposely knocked a bowl of snacks on the floor while getting ready to watch the Sunday afternoon football game- something he usually loves to do.   He had also started chewing on his hands, causing chafing and redness.

When asked about how he was feeling, Jerome dropped his head, grimaced, looked away, and, using his communication device, indicated he felt “sick,” “tired,” and “mad.”

Jerome’s mother scheduled an appointment with his primary care provider. Unfortunately, this appointment did not go well all around. The provider was new to the practice, as was Jerome, having recently transitioned from his long-time pediatric provider. Jerome and his mother waited for almost an hour past their scheduled appointment time, and when the provider came into the room, she did not acknowledge Jerome, speaking only to his

mother. A cursory exam was done at the same time Jerome’s mother was filling the provider in about his recent behavioral changes and his complaints of feeling sick and mad. In less than 15 minutes, the provider concluded that Jerome was “probably depressed given his situation” and recommended that Jerome be started on tricyclic anti-depressant medication.

In the meantime, Cecelia contacted Jerome’s case manager to inform her of her discussion with Jerome’s mom and to let her know the outcome of his appointment with his primary care provider. The case manager, who was also relatively new to Jerome, thanked Cecelia for the information. Recognizing that Jerome’s symptoms represented a change in health status, she accessed his web-based Health Risk Screening Tool (HRST) record and updated it accordingly.

 

Using the information provided by the case manager, the HRST recognized the possibility of an undiagnosed gastrointestinal condition as the potential cause of Jerome’s behavioral symptoms and produced a “service consideration” suggesting the need for clinical follow-up to rule out Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (more commonly known as GERD).

Meanwhile, Jerome was taking his anti-depressant but wasn’t feeling any better. His behavior continued to deteriorate; he lost 12 pounds and called in sick to work so often that he was in danger of losing his job. He was exhausted from lack of sleep, as were his parents.

The case manager called Jerome’s mother to share the service consideration produced by the HRST and assisted her with obtaining a referral to see a gastroenterologist. As luck would have it, the gastroenterologist had a brother with disabilities, was happy to meet and talk with Jerome and his mother, and quickly recognized that Jerome’s “behaviors” were probably related to acid reflux which can cause pain and discomfort at mealtimes and is exacerbated when lying down in bed. Diagnostics were completed, and a diagnosis of GERD was made.

Jerome’s diet was adjusted, and his bed was positioned so that the head of the bed was higher than the foot of the bed. Medications, including antacids and H-2 (histamine) blockers, were ordered. Jerome’s primary care physician was consulted, and the tricyclic anti-depressant was discontinued because a diagnosis of depression no longer seemed appropriate and because this class of medications is to be avoided in people with GERD because it can actually worsen their symptoms.

Within two weeks, Jerome was back to his baseline, smiling, eating, working, and watching the NASCAR races with his brothers.

What happened in this situation?

Jerome was likely the victim of “diagnostic overshadowing,” a phenomenon that stems from cognitive bias and poses a serious health risk for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). Often, symptoms that would otherwise be addressed through immediate medical evaluation are discounted and attributed to the person’s IDD. No further assessment is conducted, differential diagnoses are not considered, and medical conditions continue untreated, often while psychotropic medications are being given to “treat” the person’s symptoms. This bias is usually unconscious and can be addressed through healthcare provider education.

Fortunately, Jerome has attentive and knowledgeable caregivers and advocates who understand the importance of “looking beyond the symptoms,” access to a robust health risk management tool, and a disability-competent health care provider. However, there are many others who do not. In order to ensure health equity for all people with IDD, there is a need to:

  1. Ensure health care providers receive education to ensure they are disability healthcare competent
  2. Effectively monitor, identify, and address emerging health risks
  3. Educate support staff to recognize and report symptoms of the “Fatal Five Plus,” conditions most likely to lead to morbidity and mortality for people with IDD: aspiration, constipation, dehydration, seizures, sepsis, and GERD

IntellectAbility can help. Contact us for more information about the Health Risk Screening Tool (HRST), the Curriculum in IDD Healthcare, and our eLearn course on the Fatal Five.

The Fatal Five Plus

By Karen Green McGowan, RN-BC and Craig Escude, MD, FAAFP

The term “Fatal Five” refers to the top conditions linked to preventable deaths of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in congregate care settings or in community-based residential settings. While the issues can differ in order of frequency depending on the population being represented, the conditions most likely to result in death or health deterioration for people with IDD are:

  • Aspiration
  • Constipation/Bowel Obstruction
  • Seizures
  • Dehydration
  • Sepsis

Another condition which is exceedingly common, frequently overlooked, and leads to significant health troubles in people with IDD is Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, also known simply as GERD.

 

Let’s talk about each one of these in a little more detail:

Aspiration is usually listed as the most common cause of death in institutional settings, including nursing homes and large group care settings for people with IDD. Aspiration pneumonia is a common discharge diagnosis following hospitalization. It occurs when bits of food or liquids make their way into the windpipe instead of into the esophagus where it should be. Aspiration can occur during the swallowing process, but also occurs when stomach contents come back up the esophagus as a result of vomiting or gastroesophageal reflux.  It often begins subtly and damages increasing portions of the lungs. Feeding tubes, which carry their own increased risks, are often utilized in an attempt to bypass the swallowing process and reduce aspiration episodes, but are not always entirely effective. Other factors which may lead to aspiration are poor body positioning, particularly in individuals who cannot control their own movements well, and behavioral issues related to eating. One of the most common signs of aspiration is a cough noted during eating or drinking or shortly thereafter. When a cough is noted under these conditions an evaluation should be initiated to look for possible aspiration.

One of the most common signs of aspiration is a cough noted during eating or drinking or shortly thereafter.

Constipation and Bowel Obstruction are almost always at the top of the list of causes of illness and preventable death in people with IDD. One of the most important root causes of bowel obstruction is the use of multiple drugs with constipating side effects. Add to this the fact that most of us have dietary habits that contribute to the problem, chief among them, diets that are low in fiber and adequate fluids. Lack of mobility is a contributing factor to constipation, as well. We often see people on one or more medications to help improve elimination, but ironically, drugs intended to improve constipation often place the person at higher risk for impaired bowel function. Adequate active movement or exercise is also important to bowel function. Controlling these factors, along with training caretakers to recognize the signs and symptoms of bowel problems at the earliest moment can greatly reduce occurrences of illness or death from bowel obstruction.

 Seizure deaths can occur from episodes of prolonged, uncontrolled seizures as well as something called SUDEP or sudden unexplained death in epilepsy. For reasons that medical science has yet to explain, people who have epilepsy have a higher chance of dying suddenly unrelated to actual seizure activity. Drug toxicity and medication side effects can further impact the health and well-being of people who take these medications, and the balance between adequately controlling someone’s seizures and the risk of adverse drug reactions must always be at the forefront of the treatment plan.  Life expectancy for people with active seizure disorders has been shown to be up to 10 years less than those without epilepsy.

Dehydration is all too common and easily preventable in most cases. People who do not swallow well are particularly likely to refuse fluids or indicate fear when they get them, often resulting in dehydration. Dehydration is also likely when fluids are restricted in an attempt to prevent incontinence, not realizing that lack of fluids can contribute to constipation and increased seizure frequency, not to mention drug toxicity and other health problems. Awareness of fluid loss through sweating in warm and humid conditions or from loss due to vomiting or persistently elevated blood glucose levels in people with diabetes is important, as well. The presence of fever also increases a person’s fluid needs. Anyone supporting people with IDD should be aware of a person’s fluid requirements and work to ensure that they receive the necessary fluids to prevent dehydration.

Sepsis, sometimes called “the silent killer” is an ever-present threat to all. Sepsis is a condition which results from a significant infection in the bloodstream and the body’s response to that infection. Early signs of sepsis include fever, chills, rapid heart rate, low blood pressure and mental status changes.  Some of these symptoms are common with may illnesses, but one’s index of suspicion should remain high for worsening signs of a serious infection and referral for a medical evaluation should be considered earlier rather than later. The risk of death increases significantly for each hour that passes when sepsis is left untreated. Remember, “When  in doubt, send them out!”

Early detection and treatment of these conditions can lead to better health, lower risk of death and improved quality of life for people with IDD.

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is the backing up of stomach contents, including acid, into the esophagus. GERD is frequently undiagnosed in many people, including those without disabilities, until major harm has been done to the bottom of the esophagus. Medications that cause constipation also contribute to GERD. Individuals who are overweight, particularly when they carry excess weight around the abdomen or wear clothing that is too tight have a higher risk of GERD. Ill-advised dietary choices, immobility and improper positioning also contribute greatly to the incidence of GERD. As this disorder continues without treatment, discreet or frank aspiration, life-threatening gastrointestinal bleeding and esophageal cancer become increasingly common. Recognizing signs of GERD, especially in people who do not communicate with words, is important to reduce the risks associated with this condition. People who exhibit food refusal, coughing when lying down, physical or verbal aggression particularly around meal times, or distress in the middle of the night may be telling you that they are experiencing GERD. Pica, a behavior where people eat things of non-nutritional value, may also be a sign of GERD and should prompt an evaluation.

Early detection and treatment of these conditions can lead to better health, lower risk of death and improved quality of life for people with IDD. Make it a priority to educate yourself, support staff, families, and those with IDD to recognize signs of these conditions and to seek medical consultation at the earliest signs of illness.

Death from Aspiration Pneumonia

Originally published December 2016. Updated December 2022. 

Aspiration occurs when foreign material is inhaled into the airway. Causes of death include asphyxiation due to a blocked airway and irritation or infection of the respiratory tract due to inhaled material, or aspiration pneumonia, which will be the primary focus of this article.

Sources of aspirated material include: 

  • food or drink
  • saliva or nasal secretions
  • teeth and dental prosthetics 
  • objects placed in the mouth, such as gum, toys, coins, or other small foreign objects.

These objects are often contaminated, not only with bacteria from the oral cavity but also with whatever outside organisms they encountered before being placed in the mouth.

Aspirated material can also come from the stomach, either due to vomiting or gastroesophageal reflux (GERD). This material is particularly dangerous because of its elevated acidity.

Factors that enhance the risk of aspiration from either source include:

  • altered level of awareness
  • poor trunk control
  • physical deformity
  • medications that are sedating or otherwise impact swallowing
  • alcohol consumption 
  • problems with swallowing, including those associated with the aging process
  • behavioral disorders, which involve food seeking/stuffing or consumption of non-food items (PICA)

Recent antibiotic use or hospitalization, place of residence (such as a rehabilitation facility or a nursing home), and overall level of health can also increase the risk for bacterial infection with aspiration pneumonia. Individuals receiving enteral nutrition (tube feeding) have been determined to have a higher level of risk compared with those who eat by mouth.

Statistics are not readily available, but experienced field clinicians say that roughly 25% of the time, the source of aspirated material comes from above, and 75% of the time, it comes from the GI tract.

Symptoms of aspiration include:

  • bluish discoloration of the lips or
  • coughing or gagging
  • discolored, foul-smelling sputum that may contain blood or pus
  • chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • wheezing
  • sweating without exertion
  • breath odor and difficulties with swallowing

Examination findings may reveal fever, elevated respiratory rate, altered respiratory sounds, decreased oxygen saturation, elevated pulse, and decreased mental awareness.

Outcomes with aspiration pneumonia can vary greatly depending on many factors, including the severity and extent of the pneumonia, the type of bacteria involved, and the timeliness of treatment. Individuals who are in poor physical condition at the onset of symptoms will obviously not fare as well as those who are healthier.

Aspiration pneumonia is one of the top causes of death in people with IDD, and it can often be prevented. Decreasing the risk of aspiration pneumonia is a task that must be relentlessly pursued from several angles. 

  1. Simply helping individuals attain optimal body positions during and after eating is a vital first step in the process.
  2. Specialized support and positioning both during and after a meal may be required for those who have no or poor trunk control or who have other significant bodily deformities such as severe scoliosis.
  3. The person’s typical response to eating should be known and observed, particularly if they receive enteral nutrition via gastrostomy, jejunostomy, or nasogastric tubes.
  4. Monitoring for decreased oxygen saturation during and immediately after eating can be a good way to detect silent aspiration.
  5. People who have known or suspected swallowing disorders, food-related behavioral disorders, and those whose level of awareness may be impacted by medications or other factors should be given particularly close observation and any necessary mealtime support.
  6. People whose health and nutritional status are compromised should also receive specialized attention and support to decrease their vulnerability.
  7. Health and safety training for you and direct support staff is important. Ensure consistent and comprehensive knowledge of the warning signs of aspiration pneumonia and the remainder of The Fatal Five. 
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