Each year, according to the CDC, more than 500 nursing home residents die from choking. The National Safety Council says that choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the US overall — one that disproportionately affects the elderly population.
When someone’s care is entrusted to a nursing home, the facility also takes on a duty of care to do everything within established reason to protect their health and preserve their quality of life. And when nursing home residents are injured by mostly preventable dangers like choking, the nursing home may be guilty of negligence.
Risk Factors for Choking in Nursing Homes
Some nursing home residents are at higher risk of choking than others. Competent care facilities are on the lookout for these risk factors, and dedicate more of their resources to preventing choking injuries in residents that have them.
A big predictor of choking potential is a condition called dysphagia — difficulty swallowing or eating. Studies have shown that 86 percent of those with severe dementia also have dysphagia, and between 84 and 93 percent of those with moderate or worse Alzheimer’s are also affected.
Choking risk is also increased by:
- A history of strokes
- Multiple sclerosis
- Brain injuries
- Esophageal cancer
- Parkinson’s disease
- History of radiation treatment
- Old age
- Ill-fitting or poorly maintained dentures
The Warning Signs of Nursing Home Choking Hazards
Most of the time, residents will show signs of choking risk before any adverse event. Good nursing facilities have staff trained and available to intervene when these warning signs present themselves — some will even have employees cutting residents’ food for them if they are having frequent difficulty eating and swallowing. In other situations, residents with high choking risk will be given puréed food.
If a nursing home resident has suffered a choking injury after presenting any of the following signs, the care facility may be at fault:
- Coughing or gagging while eating
- Constantly clearing the throat
- Regurgitation / difficulty keeping food down
- Showing signs of pain or discomfort when eating
- Holding food in the mouth
- Eating too fast
- Trying to clear food stuck in the throat / excessive coughing to clear airway — residents may touch their breast bone or throat when eating to indicate
- Taking a long time to eat
- Chewing over and over
Preventative Steps to Take for Choking
Care facilities have a responsibility to do more than just monitor residents for choking. A capable facility will have the following methodology in place:
A. Assessment of all patients, renewed on a periodic basis. This should include tests to determine how well a patient can swallow, as well as their risk of choking.
B. Adequate staffing and training. Adequate staffing makes monitoring nursing home residents for choking possible; adequate training ensures that staff are able to deliver life-saving treatment in the event of choking.
C. A treatment plan for dysphagia. Residents at higher risk for choking may need more than just reactive treatment — a comprehensive treatment plan may include the following:
- Dietary adjustment
- SurgeryDilation treatments to widen the esophagus
D. A medical emergency plan. When choking occurs, seconds count. Without having every employee who interacts with residents trained for a choking emergency, a preventable choking death may occur.
Source: Pxfuel.com, shared under Creative Commons Zero license
Neglect That Can Contribute to Choking Injuries
There are many ways for negligence to lead to choking injuries in a nursing home. There may be a case for negligence if the nursing home has a documented failure to:
- Properly monitor eating and drinking
- Provide food or medication in an appropriate form
- Allow residents to become dehydrated, which can lead to difficulty swallowing
- Properly maintain or monitor breathing tubes
- Anticipate side effects of medication
- Ignore a resident’s respiratory disease or other breathing problem
When to Consult with an Experienced Nursing Home Attorney
Many nursing home choking deaths are avoidable. And tragically, they are often due to a lack of appropriate staffing, training or practice.
The best course of action if you feel that nursing home negligence has caused harm to a loved one is to consult with skilled attorneys like those at McEldrew Young Purtell Merritt as soon as possible. With 30 years of experience in medical malpractice, McEldrew Young Purtell Merritt is well suited to evaluate the situation and help determine if the injury suffered involved acts of negligence.