When Loren Peters arrived in the emergency room in October 2013, bruises covered his frail body and blood oozed from his gums.
The 85-year-old had not been in a fight or fallen down. Instead, he had been given too much of a popular, decades-old blood thinner that, unmonitored, can turn from a lifesaver into a killer.
“My goodness, I’ve never seen anything like it,” recalled Lorna Finch, Peters’s daughter, of the ugly purple bruise that sprawled from the middle of her father’s stomach to his hip. “It was just awful.”
Peters took Coumadin at his Marshalltown, Iowa, nursing home because he had an abnormal heart rhythm, which increases the risk of stroke. It’s a common precaution, but the drug must be carefully calibrated: too much, and you can bleed uncontrollably; too little, and you can develop life-threatening clots.
When nursing homes fail to maintain this delicate balance, it puts patients in danger. From 2011 to 2014, at least 165 nursing home residents were hospitalized or died after errors involving Coumadin or its generic version, warfarin, a ProPublica analysis of government inspection reports shows. Studies suggest there are thousands more injuries every year that are never investigated by the government.
“It’s an insidious problem,” said Rod Baird, president of Geriatric Practice Management, a firm that creates electronic health records for physicians working in long-term care facilities. Because it’s so easy to get wrong, “Coumadin is the most dangerous drug in America.”
Nursing homes around the country are routinely cited for lapses that imperil residents, from letting those with dementia wander off to not stopping elders from choking on their food. For years, advocates, researchers and government officials have worried about the overuse of antipsychotic medications that can put elderly patients into a stupor and increase their risk of life-threatening falls. A national initiative helped reduce the use of such drugs among long-term nursing home residents by 20 percent between the end of 2011 and the end of 2014.
But the dangers of the widely used Coumadin have drawn relatively little scrutiny, perhaps because the drug has clear benefits. Still, improper use has caused some patients incalculable suffering and, in some cases, greatly hastened deaths.
Dolores Huss, an 89-year-old grandmother of eight, died from internal bleeding after a San Diego facility gave her an antibiotic that multiplies the effects of Coumadin and then didn’t alert her physician that she needed additional blood tests to measure how long it was taking her blood to clot.
Shirley Reim, recovering from hip surgery, was hospitalized with blood clots in her legs after a Minnesota nursing home failed to give her Coumadin for 50 days in a row and also didn’t perform the blood test ordered by her doctor. She suffered permanent damage. Details of the cases come from government inspection reports and lawsuits filed by the patients’ families, which were settled confidentially.
Periodic inspections document hundreds of additional errors that were caught early enough to prevent serious harm, but the real toll is likely much higher, experts say.
A 2007 peer-reviewed study in the American Journal of Medicine estimated that nursing home residents suffer 34,000 fatal, life-threatening or serious events related to the drug each year. North Carolina data shows more medication errors in nursing homes involving Coumadin than any other drug.
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Popular blood thinner causing deaths, injuries in nursing homes