The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had an interesting article about the danger of entrapment in bedside rails and restraints after prominent Pittsburgher Robert Frankel’s recent accidental strangulation from entrapment in bed rails at the Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center nursing home highlighted a danger that has concerned regulators and consumer advocates for years. Mr. Frankel, a businessman, arts patron and father of a state legislator, was pronounced dead of accidental asphyxiation from “compression of the neck” after being found on the floor of his room. A state Health Department inspection report said he was “lying with his body on the floor and his neck between the air mattress and the side rail.”
Are they too dangerous or a necessary safety intervention? The risk of injuries from bed rail use, particularly in the case of dementia patients like Mr. Frankel, has been among the issues cited in a successful effort over the past two decades to reduce a variety of dangerous restraints that restricted nursing home residents. The FDA, which regulates hospital beds as a medical device, counted 531 rail-related deaths from 1985 to 2013, the most recent period in which it did an analysis.
The safety movement has been driven primarily by the goal of enhancing the dignity and independence of residents, who were once often tied to their beds or wheelchairs. However, other interventions don’t necessarily achieve their goal of enhanced safety including bed rails and alarms attached to beds or patients’ clothing. Those include placing adjustable beds low to the floor, using protective padding beside the bed and having staff learn and follow residents’ patterns for needing assistance getting to the bathroom. The only truly effective intervention is proper supervision which can only be achieved with adequate staffing.
“Even when portable bed rails and hospital bed rails are properly designed to reduce the risk of entrapment or falls, are compatible with the bed and mattress, and are used appropriately, they can present a hazard to certain individuals, particularly to people with physical limitations or altered mental status, such as dementia or delirium,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports on its website.
The state report on Mr. Frankel’s death said the nursing home was using rails not to protect him from falling out of bed, but to help him in repositioning himself due to his physical limitations. Such use of side railings is better accepted by consumer advocates, because their purpose is then as an “enabler” serving to promote independence of residents, but facilities are still supposed to ensure safety. For dementia patients, in particular, rails can be hazardous from attempts to climb over them, as well as the entrapment issues. They can fall from greater heights and incur more serious injuries, most notably to the head.
As part of a comprehensive update of nursing home regulations adopted in 2016, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services became more restrictive on use of full side rails. Residents must be assessed for risk of entrapment beforehand and steps must be taken to ensure that beds and rails are properly designed for use with one another, avoiding dangerous gaps.