Our Nation’s Hidden Elderly Deaths Scandal

Last week we reported about the shockingly deficient numbers of hospitals that do not conduct autopsies, and, as a result, miss important diagnostic and/or treatment lessons from the results.

In a related and equally disturbing reality, when elderly people die under suspicious circumstances, the reasons often remain unknown because autopsies are seldom performed on people older than 65. The investigative report by ProPublica and PBS Frontline says that no one knows how many of these suspicious deaths have been ascribed to “natural” fatalities, and how many, in fact, were the result of elder abuse or mistreatment. The report quotes a U.S. Department of Justice researcher describing the situation as “a hidden national scandal.”

The system of investigating the cause of suspicious deaths is compromised by insufficient funds, a shortage of trained medical personnel and lack of national standards that, the writers conclude, sometimes have “helped to send innocent people to prison and allowed killers to walk free. When it comes to the elderly, the system errs by omission.”

Specifically, here’s how the system discourages appropriate scrutiny of senior citizen deaths:

  • When treating physicians report that a death is natural, coroners and medical examiners almost never investigate. But doctors often get it wrong: Nearly half the doctors in one study failed to identify the correct cause of death for an elderly patient with a brain injury caused by a fall.
  • In most states, doctors can write out a death certificate without ever seeing the body.
  • Autopsies of seniors have become increasingly rare. People older than 65 represented about 6 in 10 U.S. deaths and 3.5 in 10 autopsied deaths in 1972. A generation later, seniors accounted for 7 in 10 deaths, but fewer than 2 in 10 autopsied deaths. Of the 1.8 million seniors who died in 2008, post-mortem exams were performed on only 36,000.

The ProPublica/Frontline story reports about one death a doctor attributed to clogged arteries and heart failure, but which, thanks to a tip by a nursing home worker, prompted state officials to re-examine. They concluded that the death was due to a combination of ailments often related to poor care-an infected ulcer, pneumonia, dehydration and sepsis. They said the patient’s demise was hastened by the inappropriate administration of powerful antipsychotic drugs, which can have potentially lethal side effects for seniors.

Prosecutors ended up charging the physician and two former colleagues with killing the patient and two other elderly residents.

In another case, the death was attributed to “failure to thrive” due to “dementia.” The physician who signed the death certificate hadn’t seen the patient for 13 days before he died. She never saw his corpse.

Only when the director of the funeral home that was preparing his body for burial spoke up was it discovered how wrong was the official cause of death. “I’m no CSI expert, but I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve seen a lot of dead people,” the funeral home official said. “He was all bruised up and purple, and his ribs were all broken.”

He contacted the coroner’s office, and an autopsy showed that some kind of violent impact had snapped five ribs. One of the broken bones had pierced the patient’s left lung, flooding his chest with blood. The damage was fatal. His case, too, resulted in criminal prosecution of a nursing home employee.

The reporters identified more than three-dozen cases “in which the alleged neglect, abuse or even murder of seniors eluded authorities. But for the intervention of whistleblowers, concerned relatives and others, the truth about these deaths might never have come to light.”

State laws rely on doctors to separate extraordinary fatalities from routine ones, principally by what they record on death certificates. When a doctor encounters an unusual fatality-a death that might have been caused by homicide, suicide or accident-the physician must report it to the coroner or medical examiner for further investigation.

But death certificates are frequently erroneous or incomplete; one study published last year found that nearly half of 371 Florida death certificates surveyed had errors in them. Doctors without training in forensics often have trouble determining which cases should be referred to a coroner or medical examiner.

Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said some doctors don’t grasp the significance of death certificates. “I’ve had instances where the physician just doesn’t understand the importance of what they’re writing down,” he told ProPublica/Frontline. “I’m appalled when I hear that.”

Part of the problem is age bias-the death of an older person is accepted much more readily than someone younger-and part of the problem is a lack of resources. Coroners and medical examiners can’t keep up with the number of bodies to be autopsied as it is. Bringing in more seniors exacerbates the problem.

Article first published as Our Nation’s Hidden Elderly Deaths Scandal on Technorati.

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