In recent years, increasing numbers of aged care residents have suffered burns as a result of coming into contact with heaters located in bedrooms. The June 2016 inquest1 into the death of Mrs Doris Townsend, an aged care resident, is one such example.

Background

On 29 June 2015, Mrs Townsend, who suffered from congestive cardiac failure, atrial fibrillation, paralysis down her right hand side and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, suffered a significant second degree burn to her lower right leg after her leg fell out of her bed and rested on a nearby heater.

Over the six weeks following the burn, Mrs Townsend’s health significantly declined with her oral intake reduced and blood tests demonstrating acute kidney injury, hypernatraemia, mildly deranged liver function and a white cell count of 17.7.

On 11 August 2015, Mrs Townsend was sent to the Monash Medical Centre in Clayton and to McCulloch house the following day.

Despite noted improvement in kidney function and sodium levels, Mrs Townsend’s oral intake and functional abilities did not improve. After discussion with her family, Mrs Townsend’s intravenous fluids were ceased and she was declared deceased on 21 August 2015. 

Decision

The Coroner accepted the medical cause of death as kidney impairment and dehydration following a thermal injury to the right leg. The Coroner found that it would have been prudent for Mrs Townsend’s bed not to be placed next to a hydronic heater, given her significant co-morbidities.

Despite this, the Coroner noted the efforts of the facility, prior to the incident, to move residents’ beds away from heaters. The Coroner also commended the facilitiy’s focus and action on this issue since the incident. 

Comment

The finding highlights the critical importance of aged care facilities ensuring that residents are at all times positioned away from heaters.

Facilities should ensure that all staff and family members are aware of such a requirement to ensure resident safety is paramount, and ensure that adequate policies and procedures are in place for the education of residents, staff and family members, in addition to a requirement for regular checking of residents overnight to ensure they are safe.