Overmedication can happen either because of negligence in a nursing home or intentional misconduct by nursing home staff. Some signs that a patient is overmedicated include lethargy, confusion, reclusiveness or other unusual behavior, and excessive sleeping. Any of these signs should be reported to a resident’s primary care physician or the administration of the nursing home.
Overmedication can cause injury, depression, cognitive or behavioral changes, or death. When patients are overmedicated for an extended period, the drug may accumulate in the patient’s system and cause acute medical conditions, such as a stroke or a heart attack. It can also lead to addiction, which can present serious difficulties for discontinuation. A physician should assist in weaning the patient off any drugs with which he or she has been overmedicated, particularly when the medication is psychotropic, such as antipsychotics or antidepressants.
Family members who learn of overmedication should consult an attorney who specializes in nursing home abuse and medical neglect, and they should report the problem to appropriate authorities, such as the state’s department of social services or the district attorney.
When a nursing home intentionally overmedicates an elderly resident, this is a form of elder abuse. Most states have a rule about the minimum age a senior must be to bring an elder abuse lawsuit, which is usually 60, 65, or 70. If the nursing home has a practice or policy of overmedicating its residents, the nursing home will be directly liable for the overmedication and any injuries that arise from it. If intentional conduct is at issue, punitive damages may be available to punish and deter the defendant.
However, in some cases, a nursing home employee acts of his or her own volition to intentionally overmedicate a patient. The nursing home can be held directly liable for negligently training or negligently hiring a staff member. For example, if an employer knows that a particular staff member has previously overmedicated patients and hires that person anyway, it may be liable for the staff member’s conduct. In most states, when an employee acts intentionally and causes injury to someone, the court will look at whether his or her conduct was foreseeable to the employer in determining whether to hold the employer vicariously liable under the doctrine of respondeat superior.
Why would a resident be intentionally overmedicated? Antipsychotics, sedatives, and painkillers can make a resident or patient calmer and easier to handle. Difficult or stubborn elderly residents may be given too much medication so that the nursing home staff can control their conduct more easily.
Antipsychotics can increase the risk of death for dementia patients. However, a high percentage of antipsychotics are prescribed to dementia patients because a doctor concludes that the benefits outweigh the risks. If a doctor employed by a nursing home prescribes antipsychotics to a dementia patient, the reason may not be the best interests of the patient. If intentional overmedication causes an injury or death to a nursing home resident, it may be appropriate to ask the court for punitive damages.
When a patient is overmedicated by mistake, it may give rise to a medical neglect claim against the facility. Often, elderly patients must take a number of different medications. If staff members are not adequately trained or there is understaffing at a facility, they are more likely to make mistakes when administering medications. In general, doctors should be consulted when administering both over the counter medications and prescribed medications to prevent injuries that can result from prescribing medications that are incompatible.