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Why older Americans face a higher risk of medical errors

The risk that someone will experience a medical error increases with age – but why?

Broadly speaking, geriatric care is usually characterized by the presence of multiple chronic conditions, a complex interplay of various medications and the physiological changes associated with aging. These elements collectively contribute to the heightened vulnerability of older patients to medical errors.

A combination of factors causes the trend

First, the presence of many chronic conditions in most older adults significantly complicates medical management. Each condition may require its own treatment plan, involving different medications and therapies. The complexity of managing these concurrent conditions increases the likelihood of mistakes in medication prescribing, potential drug interactions and the overlooking of important clinical signs that could lead to misdiagnosis or inadequate treatment.

Secondly, the use of multiple medications is common among the elderly due to the need to treat various health issues. This reality inspires a risk of adverse drug events, drug-drug interactions and drug-disease interactions. Errors can lead to harmful side effects, hospitalizations and even life-threatening conditions.

Finally, the physiological changes associated with aging, including those that can affect the metabolism and clearance of drugs, increase the risk of drug toxicity. These changes require more careful monitoring and dose adjustments, areas where errors can easily occur.

Additionally, communication barriers often play a significant role. Older adults may have hearing or cognitive impairments that hinder their ability to understand medical instructions or to accurately convey their health status and history. This can lead to miscommunication, misunderstanding of medication regimens, or failure to adhere to treatment plans, all of which are ripe conditions for medical errors.

It is up to healthcare providers to account for these challenges and, all too often, they don’t. When medical errors caused by negligence and substandard care affect the well-being of older patients, it’s time for affected older adults and/or their loved ones to explore their rights and legal options under the law.