Why are 155 patients dying of thirst?

18 September 2012

Today we learnt from the Daily Mirror that in 2010 155 patients died "from thirst".

Death by dehydration has been in the media's sights since 22 year-old Kane Gorny's death by dehydration due to neglect and poor care caused a stir and a public enquiry in 2009.

Back then, 130 people were reported to have died by dehydration. The latest figures show that the number rose to 155 in 2010.

The paper reports just two plausible causes for the fatalities: poor care and some forms of cancer. Another feature in the Daily Mail, published on July 24 this year, also lists kidney disease as another potential cause.

The official Office of National Statistics report does not break down the number by causes, and it doesn't provide any additional context so we contacted one of the authors of the report to find out more.

In particular, we were keen to find out:

  • How many of the fatalities are attributable to poor care?
  • Are any of them deliberate?
  • Finally, to what extent are these deaths preventable?

Claudia Wells of the ONS explained that the data doesn't provide enough information to link the deaths to poor care:

"It is not possible to determine from these figures how or where the condition originated. There are many explanations as to why someone becomes malnourished or dehydrated: for example they may have cancer of the digestive tract, which means they can't eat properly or can't absorb nutrients; they may have suffered from a stroke or have advanced dementia which can cause difficulties chewing and swallowing; or they may abuse alcohol and so not eat properly.

"The deceased may have been malnourished or dehydrated before they went into hospital (for any of the reasons I mention above), and perhaps only have been in hospital a very short time and the malnutrition/dehydration may have nothing to do with not being cared for properly in hospital.

"It is possible that poor care may have been a factor in some of the deaths, but ONS data does not provide enough evidence to draw this conclusion."

Health Minister Dan Poulter also responded to our request for comment:

"No patient should be dying from dehydration in hospital. Every patient expects to receive safe, high quality care, to receive water to drink and to be treated with compassion. There is no excuse for any hospital to be providing poor quality services for patients, and that is one of the reasons why the Care Quality Commission has increased the number of its inspections to stop poor care and to protect patients."

So while poor care and neglect certainly had an impact on fatalities due to dehydration, there simply isn't evidence to allow us to tell exactly how many deaths were due to neglect and thus were preventable. Hence we shouldn't assume that all cases of death due to thirst are comparable to the clear case of neglect involving Kane Gorny in 2009.

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