A recent and shocking ProPublica article looks at a growing trend for suspicious deaths of elderly people to be ignored. Unfortunately, after elderly people pass away, overworked and underfunded coroner and medical examiner’s offices across the country are sometimes missing cases that should be examined more thoroughly or are even being misled by caregivers who have been negligent.
ProPublica and the PBS Frontline series claim to have identified over 36 cases where alleged neglect and abuse were not discovered by authorities.
The problem, of course, is that these people are in poor health and often failing, so it is easier for a suspicious death to be passed over. In many states, physicians are allowed to certify a cause of death without even seeing the body.In addition, autopsies are becoming rarer for elderly people. Since 1972, the percentage of deaths amongst the elderly that are followed by an autopsy has declined from 37% to 17%. In addition, surveys have shown that as many as half of all death certificates have errors on them, a circumstance that is less surprising when one considers that in most stated, the person writing the death certificate is not required to have seen the body.
Of course, most deaths of elderly people are in fact from natural causes, but it is also the fact that it is easy to dismiss an elderly person’s passing as being that their time has come which makes it easy to have deaths that are not from natural causes fall through the cracks. One interesting section in the article is from the Seattle where the medical examioner for King County instituted a program to review all fatalities listed as natural. In a 2 year period, the review found 347 deaths that had been misclassified, including a couple that were in fact homicides.
Dealing with this problem could be very difficult. Budgets for coroner’s offices and medical examiners are being cut constantly. It seems like the right thing to do is to insitute reviews for many deaths, but in a time of economic uncertainty, the political and financial will may not be there.