Patient Falls in Hospitals – Medical Negligence, Simple Negligence?

Hospitals should be kept clean and safe at all timesThe Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) estimates that 700,000 to 1,000,000 patients suffer falls in hospitals each year. The AHRQ points out that as of 2008, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) no longer pays hospitals for preventable complication related to these incidents.

This would suggest that these falls are indicative of medical negligence.  However, this is not always the case.

The presence of medical negligence and the possibility of a medical malpractice claim will be dependent upon the circumstances.  In addition, some falls may result from plain old negligence separate and apart from medical negligence.

Duty of Care Defined by Circumstances

The is always a duty of care for medical providers.  The duties are codified in the New Mexico jury instructions.

There is always a duty of care for New Mexico medical providers.  The level of duty of care may vary depending upon the patient and other circumstances.  Jury instruction, UJI §13-1101, provides the general duty stating, “in part that the medical provider is under the duty to possess and apply the knowledge and to use the skill and care ordinarily used under similar circumstances…”

Thus, it is clear that the circumstances will dictate in large whether of not there is actionable medical negligence.  This means that in circumstances suggesting patient fall risks, the duty of care will increase accordingly.

Circumstances Suggesting Fall Risks

Certain physical and mental conditions of the patient suggest fall risk and suggest a heightened degree of care.

Not every patient is at risk of fall.  As such, hospitals are not bound to implement and enforce unnecessary fall prevention measures in the absence of some identifiable risks.

The most common risk factors identified in the AHRQ study related to “problems with walking and transfers, medication side effects, confusion, frequent toileting needs.” This would include issues such as muscle weakness, impaired mental condition, old age, the necessity of a cane or walker and other such conditions suggesting a fall risk. The presence of these issues with a patient would suggest a heightened duty of care.

There is a range of duty here.  For instance, one of the most common fall incidents involves transfers from the bed by medical personnel.  Allowing a patient to fall or dropping the patient in this situation would almost surely indicate negligence.

On the other hand, a perfectly able patient who falls on the way to the bathroom would likely not indicate negligence.  After all, it is neither possible nor advisable to unnecessarily bound recovering patients to their beds.

Simple Negligence

Some falls will fall under simple negligence and may be pursued as a standard premises liability (slip and fall) injury claim.

One thing the AHRQ report points out is that it is important to optimize the “hospital‘s physical design and environment.”  Falls related to these sorts of issues would, in the absence of involvement by medical providers, constitute simple negligence for which a run of the mill liability/slip and fall personal injury claim could be made.

There are a number of ways this could occur.  There are some medical facilities whose hallways and rooms seem to be designed as an obstacle course gauntlet for patients and families.  Others simply fail to keep the rooms and hallways free of hazards, such as spills.

There really is no excuse for these types of hazards and ensuing accidents.  This is true of any business but particularly true of hospitals due to the nature of their customers.  Patients are often physically weakened and many times distracted by their health issues such as pain.  They are neither in the physical or mental state to be put in an unnecessarily challenging physical environment.

Serous Injuries Resulting from Falls Merit Review

Serious injuries merit a serious review of the file to determine if there was negligence worthy of a claim.

If you or a loved one has suffered serious personal injuries or death resulting from a fall at a hospital, it is important to get the case reviewed by an experienced medical malpractice attorney.

There are falls that occur during medical care that hospitals can and should prevent.  If they are preventable and the risks of fall is significant, then there may very well be a medical malpractice claim.

In the absence of medical negligence but in the case of hazardous hospital environment, there may be a medical malpractice claim and/or a slip and fall type claim.

No matter what the circumstances of the fall, if serious injury or death occurred, then the case should be properly reviewed to identify possible claims against the hospital and medical providers.

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