Bed Rail Asphyxiation Leads to Death and Lawsuits

A recent article from the New York Times spotlights the safety issues with bed rails in nursing homes - When the family of one nursing home man was told on Christmas morning that he had passed away, the family was not shocked. The man who was 75 and a retired phone company worker, was a hospice patient, given a diagnosis geriatricians call failure to thrive, a multifaceted decline that most commonly occurs toward the end of life. He also had a do-not-resuscitate order.

The way he died, however, surprised his family. According to the family's attorney the man was asphyxiated between his mattress and bed rails. True, the man was already near death, he acknowledged. “But nobody at the end of life should have to die in this manner.”

“Rails decrease your risk of falling by 10 to 15 percent, but they increase the risk of injury by about 20 percent because they change the geometry of the fall,” he explained in an interview. Confused  or demented patients who try to climb over the rails, instead of falling from a lower level and landing on their knees or legs, are apt to fall farther and strike their heads.

But the greater danger is entrapment — patients getting stuck within the rails or between the rail and the mattress. By last year, the Food and Drug Administration had tallied 480 deaths, 138 injuries and 185 close calls involving hospital beds over a 24-year period.

The F.D.A., bed manufacturers and hospital and nursing home administrators have known of such potential hazards for years, and in 2006 the F.D.A. issued guidelines to reduce them. In fact, bed rail use has dropped substantially, partly because of those guidelines but also because research has shown that they don’t benefit patients — and because of lawsuits by family members. The ultimate solution would be to establish manufacturing standards so that no bed has a dangerous gap between mattress and rail, just as one can no longer buy a crib that could entrap an infant. For more, read the story.

Robert W. Carter,Jr. is a Virginia attorney whose law practice is dedicated to protecting the rights of the victims of nursing home and assisted living neglect and abuse in Richmond, Roanoke, Norfolk, Lynchburg, Danville, Charlottesville, and across Virginia.

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