MIDDLETOWN — The University of Connecticut School of Nursing and Middlesex Hospital are beginning a three-year geriatric care and research program in Middlesex County with a $1.4 million federal grant.

Through outreach to the aging population in the area, the team of doctors, nurses and students hopes to determine why so many elderly patients are using the emergency room for everyday medical care needs.

Dr. Millicent Malcolm, a professor at UConn and nurse practitioner with a practice at the Middlesex Hospital Primary Care Center, will lead the Geriatric Outreach and Training With Care program.

"Over my years I've noticed that geriatrics is an area that has a huge need because our aging population is growing," Malcolm said. "It's a problem across the country right now that older patients are using the emergency room for care that should be provided by their primary care provider."

She said faculty from several departments at UConn and their students will participate, encouraging the team-based approach that is becoming the new standard of health care. Students in the Middlesex Hospital residency program will also participate.

Teams will meet with elderly patients in their homes and discuss geriatric care, then consult with the patient's primary care doctor.

"We are providing an outreach service to those vulnerable older patients in need in our community by addressing the quality of life issues that make them use the emergency room so often for care," Malcolm said.

Planning and preliminary work will be done in the fall, with outreach work starting in January for the spring semester.

A 2008 study done by Middlesex Hospital showed that Middlesex County had a higher average age than the rest of the state, and that those people were using the emergency room at a higher rate than average older patients elsewhere, said Catherine Rees, community benefits manager at the hospital.

Rees said other studies have shown that there is a lack of specialized geriatric care in the medical field.

"It is really critical that we ensure our new providers entering the workforce do have specific training in geriatrics," Rees said.

With the new grant-funded program, patients will receive "comprehensive geriatric assessment" reports and students will get hands-on, on-site training in geriatric care, Rees said.

"This grant allows us to implement something we've been looking at for such a long time," Rees said. "This has been a difficult issue to grapple with. Older adult issues can be so complex because the issues can be so varied and so broad."

In-home studies will spot psychological and physical issues patients may be facing, but will also identify issues like income, family structure and transportation that can also impact health care. Officials said they hope the grant program will help form a reliable model for geriatric care in the state.