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.Continued on the next page