New Report Shows Elderly Deaths Involving Nursing Home Abuse are Increasingly Ignored

January 4, 2012

543797_elderly_hospital_patient.jpgIllinois elder abuse attorneys at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm strongly advocate on behalf of all elderly nursing home residents who are harmed by abuse and neglect. When we place our vulnerable loved ones in a nursing home or other long-term care facility, we rightfully expect that the facility will provide the quality care that they deserve. Federal and state laws such as the Nursing Home Care Act mandate certain minimum standards that must be met in order to protect nursing home residents. Unfortunately, instances of abuse and neglect continue to expose our loved ones to devastating and often fatal injuries. Unfortunately, the problem is more widespread than we realize. A new report conducted by the non-profit organization ProPublica explains how systematic flaws allow tragic cases of abuse and neglect to be ignored.

Investigators uncovered more than three dozen cases of alleged abuse and suspicious deaths involving seniors that were overlooked by authorities and written off as natural fatalities. Erroneous or incomplete death certificates are partly to blame. Many states allow physicians to fill out a death certificate even if they have never seen the body. As a result, clear signs of abuse are frequently eluding authorities. In the case of a 76-year-old nursing home resident described in the report, his death was tied to obvious signs of poor care such as an infected ulcer, sepsis, and dehydration. He was also given an inappropriate amount of powerful and potentially lethal antipsychotic drugs by nursing home staff. However, his death certificate listed his cause of death as heart failure caused by clogged arteries. The true cause of his death would not have been revealed without a tip from a nursing home staffer prompting authorities to re-examine his case.

Faulty reporting practices are also to blame. Hospitals must report unexplained or suspicious deaths to the coroner or medical examiner for further investigation. However, these agencies rarely take hospital cases due to a lack of financial and staffing resources.

A general resistance among the medical community to order autopsies for patients
older than 60 is another contributing factor that explains why so many suspicious senior deaths are overlooked. Out of more than 1.8 million seniors who died in 2008, less than 2 percent were autopsied. This may be due to a shared sense of bias leading coroners and medical examiners to assume that senior deaths are due to the natural aging process rather than institutional mistreatment. An even more likely explanation can be attributed to economic concerns. An autopsy can cost more than $1,000, and Medicare or other insurers strictly limit reimbursements. Medical examiners and coroners are already overburdened, and bringing in more seniors would further stretch their limited resources. Doctors may also have an inflated sense of confidence in diagnostic tools such as CT scans while seniors are alive, but even the most sophisticated equipment can lead to diagnostic errors serious enough to result in death.

When autopsies are not performed, the entire medical community suffers. An autopsy that is performed on a patient who dies of a hospital-acquired infection may help authorities identify the source of the infection and save other patient's lives. An autopsy can also reveal signs of abuse such as pressure sores or bed sores which indicate a serious violation from the legal standard of care.

If you or a loved one has suspect nursing home neglect and abuse, it is important to contact an experienced Illinois nursing home abuse lawyer as soon as possible. Nursing homes and other senior care facilities have a legal and contractual obligation to care for residents. Elder abuse that includes physical abuse, emotional or psychological abuse, sexual assault, or neglect directly violates this obligation and economic damages may be recovered. Even if the death of an elderly resident appears unsuspicious, there may still be underlying signs of abuse and neglect that an autopsy could uncover. Our elder abuse attorneys can walk you through the legal process and help protect your legal rights.