Study Shows 1 in 5 Elderly Patients Injured By Medical Care

A study published in the journal Injury Prevention found that approximately 19 percent of elderly patients have suffered from at least one adverse medical incident that was unrelated to an underlying disease or condition.

The study included medical events like:

  • being given the wrong medication
  • having an allergic reaction to a medication
  • receiving any treatment that led to more complications of an existing medical problem

The problem was found to be widespread and not necessarily concentrated in hospitals. Two-thirds of adverse medical events occurred in clinics, doctor’s offices, outpatient surgery centers, emergency rooms, and nursing homes.

Medication errors alone have proven to be a major problem in the U.S. health system. The National Patient Safety Foundation reports that medication errors affect about 1.5 million patients every year, causing more than $3.5 billion in unnecessary medical costs. In addition, about 1 in 20 hospitalized patients contract health care-acquired infections, leading to longer recovery times and more time spent in the hospital.

Several previous studies have examined the conditions in nursing homes and how they contribute to patient health. A 2013 study found that more than half of nursing home residents were classified as malnourished or at risk for becoming malnourished. Despite the passage of the Nursing Home Reform Act of 1987, malnutrition and dehydration continue to present a major problem in nursing homes. One study likened the state of nursing homes to “poverty-stricken developing countries where inadequate food intake is compounded by repeat infections.”

Elderly patients are routinely subject to a substandard level of care, leading to medication mix-ups, allergic reactions, malnutrition, dehydration, and even bedsores. Tens of thousands of patients die from bedsore-related complications every year, according to a 2009 report. Simple nutrition and lifestyle changes can prevent elderly patients from developing bedsores—even as simple as rotating the patient every few hours to relieve pressure. Bedsores, also known as pressure ulcers or pressure sores, increased by more than 75 percent between 1993 and 2006, nearly 5 times the increase of overall hospitalizations.

Unfortunately, the sicker an elderly patient is, the more at risk they are for medical injuries. Older patients, people with chronic medical conditions, and patients with low-income backgrounds were found to be most at risk for adverse medical events during treatment. The study found that, for every additional month of age, there was a 1 percent increase in likelihood of a medical injury, and there was a 27 percent increase for each chronic condition a patient had.

Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, says, “We have long known that medical care, while pledged to avoid harm above all, actually imposes quite a bit of it. Medical injury is all too common, and adverse effects of treatment are common, even in the absence of error.”

The study focused on more than 12,500 Medicare patients who made claims between 1998 and 2005.