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ER Doctors Often Fail to Detect Elder Abuse

Elder abuse is a growing problem that impacts approximately one to two million Americans aged 60 and older every year. The exact number of victims is unclear because the abuse or neglect is often not reported.

According to a recent study, elder abuse may also go undetected by emergency room staff. Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, University of California San Diego, and Weil Cornell Medicine found that a formal diagnosis of elder abuse is made in just 1 of 7,700 ER visits by seniors. Previous studies have estimated that 10 percent of seniors have suffered some form of elder abuse.

“These findings indicate that the vast majority of victims of elder abuse pass through the emergency department without the problem being identified,” Timothy Platts-Mills, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine and co-director of the division of geriatric emergency medicine at the UNC School of Medicine and senior author of the study, said in a press statement.

Given the expected growth of the senior population, the researchers emphasize that the ER represents a major missed opportunity to combat elder abuse. “Emergency physicians strive to make sure that for each patient who comes through the door, all serious and life-threatening conditions are identified and addressed. For elder abuse, EDs across the country are falling short,” Platts-Mills stated.

In most hospitals, doctors ask patients if they feel safe at home, but ask no further questions. The researchers plan to improve the identification of elder abuse by developing and validating a screening tool that can be used in emergency rooms. The new tool will use several questions to inquire about different aspects of elder abuse, including psychological abuse and neglect. It will also include a physical exam for patients with significant cognitive impairment.

As San Diego injury lawyers, we agree that the study’s results are concerning, particularly because doctors are often in the best position to identify elder abuse and help victims get the help they need. We are hopeful that further research and advocacy will help improve patient safety.

If you or someone you love has fallen victim to elder abuse or nursing home negligence, don’t hesitate to contact a San Diego elder abuse attorney at the Law Offices of Robert Vaage for a free consultation.