Our country’s annual celebration of the 4th of July holiday always brings to mind the many sacrifices that have been made down the years to guarantee the freedom that too many of us take for granted during the remainder of the year. From the “baby boomers” who lived through the strife of the Viet Nam era to the most revered members of the “greatest generation”, our ranks of senior citizens are dramatically swelling. Indeed, conservative estimates suggest that the number of people aged 65 and older will more than double between 2010 and 2050. This equates to 88.5 million people or 20 percent of our entire population. In addition, those aged 85 and older will rise three-fold, to 19 million citizens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Recent times have also seen a dramatic increase in Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America suggests that 5.1 million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer’s disease—most of whom currently reside in a nursing home facility. This number is expected to dramatically increase over the next 25 years and researchers are at a loss to explain why.
With an ever-increasing population of senior citizens comes the obvious need for medical services and long-term nursing home care. As a result, traditional nursing home facilities are often overwhelmed and find that their resources are stretched beyond the limit of what is generally considered safe. Reliable projections reveal that this already overwhelming burden is ever increasing with more seniors necessitating a greater level of supervision and skilled nursing home care year to year. Unfortunately, it is apparent that the increased demands on nursing home care are proportional to a steady rise in medical mistakes. Nursing home patients are most commonly elderly, fragile, and particularly susceptible to suffering life-threatening consequences in instances that involve seemingly minimal instances of neglect. For example, leaving an elderly patient who is a known fall risk unattended for even a brief period of time can frequently lead to a fractured hip, the onset of pneumonia, and eventually, premature death.
In recent times, advocacy groups like the National Quality Forum, a non-profit organization devoted to developing a strategy for measuring the quality of healthcare in the United States, introduced the idea of “never events.” A “never event” is an event, mistake, or error that should never occur in the healthcare setting. The most common “never events” in a nursing home setting are:
It is important to note that most nursing home staff are comprised of competent, dedicated, and generally well-meaning individuals. The formidable burden that these medical professionals face, however, tax their ability to consistently deliver the type of quality healthcare that we would all want for our loved ones. To this end, greater vigilance is required of a patient’s family to identify perceived vulnerabilities and instances where care is seemingly substandard. Greater awareness of a patient’s ongoing needs and changing medical condition, (as well as a pro-active and collaborative relationship with a patient’s caregivers), is the best insurance against the often devastating consequences that follow from a “never event.”
Dino M. Colucci, the Esquire, is a founder of Colucci, Colucci & Marcus, P.C., a law firm dedicated to representing victims of elder abuse and neglect. He is also an adjunct Professor of Law at Suffolk University Law School.