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You Should Know: The Warning Signs of Nursing Home Abuse

Choosing nursing home, assisted living or in-home medical care is complicated, difficult and often an emotional process. The last thing on your mind is the possibility that those responsible for the care of some of our most vulnerable citizens would abuse or neglect their patients. But it does happen all too often, which is why you should know the signs of elder abuse and how to find quality care for the older loved ones in your life

Protect the elderly in your life by learning the signs of elder abuse.

Protect the elderly in your life by learning the signs of elder abuse.

As U.S. Population Ages, Reports of Nursing Home Abuse also on the Rise

National data on cases of abuse in America’s 15,600-plus nursing homes and other elder-care programs is hard to come by. But several recent studies by government investigators, advocacy groups and the news media have chilling implications.

According to the National Ombudsman Reporting System (NORS), 14,258 (7.6 percent) of approximately 188,599 complaints reported to state ombudsman programs in 2014 involved abuse, gross neglect or exploitation. Another study of nursing home staff throughout the country found that 36 percent had witnessed at least one incident of physical abuse of an elderly patient in the previous year, 10 percent committed at least one act of physical abuse, and 40 percent admitted to committing psychological abuse. It gets worse: A CNN special investigation aired in February found that the federal government cited more than 1,000 nursing homes for mishandling or failing to prevent alleged cases of sexual assault and abuse from 2013 to 2016.

Given that 1.4 million aging adults already live in nursing homes and that the number of Americans 65-plus will double from 2010 to 2050, this issue will only become more pressing.


Keep a Watchful Eye

Financial abuse is often overlooked, costing older Americans more than  $36 billion a year .

Financial abuse is often overlooked, costing older Americans more than $36 billion a year.

Abuse can encompass a wide range of behaviors, including physical, mental, emotional, sexual, and financial abuse and neglect. Beyond the physical scars left by abuse, neglect and mistreatment have dangerous effects on the quality of life left to an aging person. Elders who have been abused have a higher risk of early death compared to those who have not been mistreated. If your loved ones are in a nursing home or other elder care program, watch for these warning signs:

  • Broken bones or fractures
  • Bruising, cuts or welts
  • Bed sores
  • Frequent infections
  • Signs of dehydration
  • Mood swings and emotional outbursts or unusual depression
  • Reclusiveness or refusal to speak
  • Refusal to eat or take medications
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Poor physical appearance or lack of cleanliness
  • Caregivers that do not want the patient to be left alone with others
  • Sudden changes in financial situation or missing personal items

Protect Your Most Vulnerable Loved Ones

For a family member or caregiver choosing a care facility, the risk of abuse can be overwhelming and traumatic. The best way to prevent elder abuse is to choose the right care facility, which is not always easy given location or financial constraints. Nevertheless, here are factors to consider:

  • Talk to residents or other patients. Observe their physical well-being and behavior. Also visit with residents’ families if possible, and learn whether they have experienced problems with the facility.
  • Avoid facilities that have restricted access.
  • Meet with key personnel (nurses, aides, social workers, administrators and doctors).
  • Read contracts carefully before signing and look for a forced arbitration clause. The rights of your loved one may be denied even if they are abused.
  • Visit frequently. Vary your visits to different times of the day and evening to assess the care provided during the day, night, weekends and holidays.
  • Trust your gut. Pay attention to whether residents appear clean, well fed and free of bruises or other wounds. Also note if the environment is peaceful and feels safe.
  • Document in writing the details about any problems or concerns.
  • Compare facilities. Look up state survey reports here.

This article appeared in our April 2017 "You Should Know" e-newsletter.

You Should Know: New Laws Weaken Protection Against Medical Malpractice

Restricting Your Rights Will Not Fix Medical Malpractice, Nursing Home Negligence

Jean Simmons kept moving her mother Betty from one nursing home to another after discovering mistreatment and neglect by her mother’s caregivers. When her mother died recently at a nursing home in East Texas, Ms. Simmons wanted justice for the woman who raised her while maybe preventing someone else’s parent from spending the waning years of life in misery.

But Texas – like more than 30 other states – has a cap on damages for medical malpractice and nursing home abuse cases, which effectively prevents Ms. Simmons from holding the nursing home company accountable. “It is a lose-lose, because your loved one is suffering and you don’t even want validation or money for it,” Simmons said. “You just want good care. And you still can’t get that.”  

Medical Errors Pegged as Third Leading Cause of Death

Our most vulnerable citizens are often the victims of medical and nursing home negligence.

Our most vulnerable citizens are often the victims of medical and nursing home negligence.

You’ve probably heard or read about nursing home abuse cases like that of Ms. Simmons, or stories about terrible mistakes at hospitals and clinics, or reports about medical devices that fail and cause serious injury or death.

So why in the world would anyone propose a new bill in Washington, D.C., that would make it nearly impossible for you to pursue lawsuits and hold insurance companies and big corporations accountable for these mistakes? But that’s exactly what this new legislation would do, capping damages on medical malpractice and nursing home abuse lawsuits to $250,000. Other restrictions would protect for-profit nursing homes, insurance providers and even caregivers who intentionally abuse a patient.

Supporters of these measures argue that they are necessary to deter greedy patients from exploiting doctors and health care facilities for personal gain. Many say that caps will keep health care costs down by reducing the amount of money paid out for medical malpractice lawsuits and insurance. But the experts tell a very different story.

  • Nearly half a million people die from preventable medical errors each year, making it the third leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer. In addition, 10 to 20 times more people are seriously injured. Caps do nothing to make health care safer and instead protect the financial interests of big corporations and insurance companies rather than save you money.
  • Lawyers are not filling the courts with frivolous medical malpractice and nursing home abuse lawsuits. Medical malpractice lawsuits are rare and make up only 0.2 to 2 percent of all civil cases each year, and that number continues to decrease.
  • Instead of lowering health care costs, research shows that costs have actually increased by about 4 to 5 percent in states with damage caps.

And something else you should know about these laws: They allow the federal government to override state laws that protect consumers and patients in favor of laws that protect corporate health care at the expense of patient safety.  

Help Us Oppose Laws that Punish Those Who Have Already Suffered

The founders of this country knew how important it was to arm the average citizen with the right to hold powerful special interests accountable in a court of law. Restricting that right in cases of negligent medical and nursing home care will only punish those who have already suffered enough while actually reducing the incentive for big corporations and insurance companies to address the epidemic of preventable medical errors.

Later this month, the House of Representatives will take the first step in restricting this right for all Americans by voting on House Resolution 1215. If passed, the bill will then move on to the Senate and eventually the President's desk. We urge you to take a closer look at this legislation, and if you feel the same way as we do, contact your members of Congress and make your voice heard on this important issue.

This article appeared in our March 2017 "You Should Know" e-newsletter.

Focus Should Be On Health Care Safety

We understand that it is difficult for anyone to wrap their head around the issue of errors and health care. Americans have a justifiably high opinion of doctors, nurses and other care providers. The vast majority are dedicated professionals that do tremendous good for society and save many lives.

But to err is human, and it has become clear that the big business of health and nursing home care results in too many preventable injuries. According to a recent study by doctors at Johns Hopkins, death due to medical error ranks 3rd (250,00 per year) behind heart disease and cancer. That is an alarming statistic. So read our March newsletter not as an indictment of the fine people who work in health care today, but rather a defense of every American’s right to justice and accountability when preventable mistakes occur. Patients and families who are harmed by preventable medical errors should not be denied their right to seek legal redress for what has happened to them. 

Guy W. Crabtree is a partner with Crabtree, Carpenter & Connolly, PLLC, in Durham, NC.