Giving Older Adults the Reins

UB’s Team Alice is empowering older adults to take charge of their health care and stop preventable medical errors.

digital illustration of elderly couple on pill bottle.

The story of Alice, a healthy, older woman who died as a result of preventable medical errors, has long served as an instructive cautionary tale for health sciences students at the University at Buffalo. Now that story is going national, in a push to better protect millions of older adults from such errors.

Team Alice, a research, education and advocacy program that’s part of UB’s Center for Successful Aging, is partnering with the National Council on Aging (NCOA) to disseminate Alice’s story to the organization’s national audience. The goal of the collaboration: to educate older adults about the dangers of overmedication and empower them to actively participate with their health care providers in making medication decisions.

Alice’s story

In 2009, Mary Brennan Taylor lost her feisty, independent 88-year-old mother, Alice, to overmedication and other preventable medical errors in just six weeks. Stunned and grief-stricken by her mother’s rapid decline, Taylor, an adjunct assistant professor in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, wanted to build awareness of the problem and spark change in health care.

She began sharing Alice’s story in 2011 with UB students, first at the medical and nursing schools, and soon after at the schools of pharmacy and public health. In over a decade of working with students at UB, Taylor has seen Alice’s story open the eyes of tomorrow’s health care workers. She has also been invited to speak at national meetings of the Centers for Medicare & 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.

Partnering with the NCOA, which works with thousands of organizations nationwide, expands the reach of Team Alice’s message exponentially, said Taylor. “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.”

Still inspiring students

Taylor still gives her talk about a dozen times each year to UB medical students and nursing students, many of whom continue to be inspired by Alice’s story.

Andrew Baumgartner, a Jacobs School alum now doing a family medicine residency at UB, began conducting research with Team Alice during his first year at the Jacobs School. He recalls 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. 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,” said Baumgartner. “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 toward patient safety is incalculable.”