The National Center on Elder Abuse has found that nearly one to two million Americans ages 65 and older are injured, taken advantage of, or mistreated. The elderly are especially susceptible to such misconduct when placed in assisted living facilities where they rely on staff to help in their daily absolutions. Types of injuries elderly persons have been known to suffer from in such an environment include, but are not limited to: assault, staff not preventing bed sores, not being regularly fed or hydrated, not having bed pans changed, financial abuse, and sexual assault. But nursing homes are not the only places the elderly may be subject to such mistreatment. Physicians treating the elderly may be found guilty of elder abuse.
In July of 2013, a California state court found that a treating physician who did not refer his elderly patient to a specialist was guilty of elder abuse. In the year 2000, Elizabeth Cox, an 83 year-old woman, went to Pioneer Medical Group for medical treatment for her onychomycosis. During 2007, her condition worsened and she was diagnosed as having peripheral vascular disease. As her condition continued to worsen, she continued to visit Pioneer Medical Group on several more occasions. During these visits she complained of problems that went hand in hand with her diagnosis of peripheral vascular disease. In 2009, Ms. Cox was admitted to the hospital with gangrene and had her right leg amputated. Then, in 2010, she died due to blood poisoning.
Ms. Cox’s daughters sued Pioneer Medical Group for elder abuse. Ms. Cox’s estate claimed that Pioneer Medical Group was liable for elder abuse in that they continued to fail to refer Ms. Cox to a specialist who would be a better match for treating her deteriorating condition. Pioneer Medical counter-argued that it was in no way liable for elder abuse as its physicians treated Ms. Cox and, furthermore, such a claim required that the physicians have custodial obligations, which they did not have over Ms. Cox. Finally, Pioneer Medical argued it was not liable for elder abuse as it did not demonstrate any reckless neglect in its care of Ms. Cox. Rather, if Pioneer Medical were liable for anything, a more accurate claim against it would be professional negligence. The court, however, did not agree. The Court of Appeal for the state of California ruled that physicians may indeed be found liable for elder abuse in the outpatient treatment of their elderly patients, regardless of whether or not such physicians have custodial obligations to these patients.
This decision impacts physicians that are treating the elderly in that these physicians are no longer being judged solely on a negligence standard. They may find themselves judged on this new standard. Physicians that are found guilty of elder abuse can expect to pay out of pocket awards. This is due to the fact that insurance policies will not normally cover claims relating to elder abuse.
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