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The Elderly in the ER

Our team of nursing home negligence lawyers recently wrote on the alarmingly high rate of elder injury from medical care (one third of nursing home residents are injured by medical errors). Unfortunately, nursing home residents are often admitted to the emergency rooms, where the staff knows next-to-nothing about the person they are taking care of. Here we have outlined a few ways those in the industry are trying to fix this.

Dr. Pauline Chen recently wrote a blog for the New York Times on the subject, asking whether emergency rooms are at all safe for the elderly. In her piece, Dr. Chen recounts the story of an elderly man she once treated in the ER for a serious infection. The man lived alone, was overwhelmed by the information given to him in the ER, and none of the staff had been trained in coordinating the complex care elderly patients often require.

Finally, unsure how to proceed, an older nurse suggested they just admit the man to the hospital. It would cost more, and was likely unnecessary, but it was the only way they could ensure he received proper care. This case is far from uncommon, and the number of older Americans who need immediate or complex health care is expected to increase substantially over the next few decades.

Because our healthcare system is already short of primary care and geriatric caregivers, many elderly people will wind up in the ER for things like infections or falls. Emergency rooms themselves, however, are usually overwhelmed by patients and doctors and nurses are required to get through patients as quickly as possible.

With elderly patients, particularly those with dementia or other cognitive conditions, working quickly is not only dangerous but nearly impossible. Many nursing home residents suffer from numerous physical and cognitive ailments, take several different types of drugs (which are difficult to remember), and have trouble remembering other important details.

Medical experts recognize this danger and are taking measures to improve it. Among their calls for action, these specialists assert that medical centers need to update their facilities to meet the needs of elderly patients. More specifically, they recommend that hospitals:

• Hire or train staff on caring for older patients
• Screen for dementia • Install non-slip flooring
• Train staff on social factors elderly patients may require, such as transportation
• Have walkers, canes and other medical equipment on-hand • Assistance with prescriptions

Is Telemedicine the Answer?

Others suggest that nursing homes start using telemedicine systems, which would let residents see a doctor through video conference. If a resident gets sick or injured, outside physicians can use video chat to see and speak to them. In a recent study on these types of systems in nursing homes, facilities that regularly used the service sent fewer residents to the hospital. That study, published in Health Affairs, can be found here.

However, simply making this type of service available in nursing homes does not guarantee that staff will properly use it. There is widespread issues inherent in the American nursing home industry, most poignantly how overworked the understaffed these facilities truly are.

Physicians, on the other hand, are excited by the idea that they could manage their chronic illness and elderly patients more regularly, and achieve better outcomes at the same time. Policymakers are also warning up to the idea; Medicare now pays for telemedicine services in rural and “fringe” areas, and 19 states now require insurance plans to cover telemedicine.

Nursing home neglect lawyers at Pintas & Mullins are always looking into new ways to help our elderly clients and their families. If you have any questions regarding medical care in a nursing home, emergency room or hospital, contact our firm today. We provide free, confidential legal consultations to concerned families throughout the country.

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