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Huge spike in people left to die at home and not found for ‘weeks’ during pandemic

The number of people who were left to die at home and not found for “weeks” saw a huge spike during the Covid-19 pandemic, the first study of its kind has shown.

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Research examining post-mortems found cases of markedly decomposed bodies increased by 70 per cent between the year before and after the UK went into lockdown on March 23, 2020. 

Every severely decomposed person that died at home included in the analysis lived alone, the study by pathologists at Imperial College Healthcare Trust, published in the journal Clinical Pathology, stated.

Some of the deaths that occurred in private homes during the pandemic would have normally happened in hospital, the authors concluded, but had some of the patients been treated in hospital it is possible “they would not have died at all”.

Some of the deaths that occurred in private homes during the pandemic would have normally happened in hospital, the authors concluded, but had some of the patients been treated in hospital it is possible ‘they would not have died at all’ - PA
 PA Some of the deaths that occurred in private homes during the pandemic would have normally happened in hospital, the authors concluded, but had some of the patients been treated in hospital it is possible ‘they would not have died at all’ - PA

The authors said they hoped the findings would provoke discussion around palliative care at home in England and cases of people dying alone during the pandemic “that may have been preventable”.

It comes as official figures show more than 75,000 excess deaths occurred in private homes in England and Wales since the start of the pandemic, raising questions about the quality of end-of-life care.

System is failing people

Charities have said this new research, which examined around 260 post-mortems in London, “clearly shows a system failing people when they are most in need”.

“This excess in severe decomposition following death is generally a sign of the body not being found for a long time, in excess of at least a week,” study co-author Dr Theodore Estrin-Serlui, a trainee pathologist, told The Telegraph.

During the pandemic many people stayed away from the health service or found it more difficult to access treatment.

Concluding the study, the authors said it was possible to consider that “if these people had been in hospital ... maybe they would not have died at all, if their condition/illness was readily treatable”.

The researchers analysed 159 post-mortems carried out between March 2019 and March 2020 and found less than one in six (26, 16.4 per cent) of the deaths showed marked decomposition.

Of the 104 post-mortems analysed from between March 2020 and March 2021 more than a quarter (29, 27.9 per cent) showed marked decomposition - a 70.5 per cent increase on the previous year.

There were 38 per cent more deaths at home in the 2020/21 cohort and the frequency of severe decomposition in these deaths was up by almost a fifth (19 per cent), but the researchers said this result was not statistically significant.

Dr Sam Royston, director of policy and research at Marie Curie, said: “The pandemic has been a stress test for how well our health and care system works for people dying at home. And this data clearly shows a system failing people when they are most in need.”

People have died in pain

Three quarters of carers whose loved ones died at home during the pandemic said they had missed out on care, according to research by the charity.

“This means that people have died in pain, they have lacked care overnight and not had their symptoms fully managed. It means that families were left to struggle alone and now our own bereavement services are seeing the impact of this - supporting people who are showing signs of trauma,” he said.

Dr Estrin-Serlui said a limitation of the study is that the majority of in-hospital Covid-19 deaths over the last year did not require a post-mortem. “But it still highlights the fact that of the people dying at home, a lot of them were alone, and a lot of them were not being found for a long time,” he said.

“How a society respects its dead is a way of seeing how kind, caring and empathetic a society is. And if there are more people who live alone who are rotting [after they die], I think that unfortunately is an indictment, potentially, of the social structure that underpins our society,” he added. 

A Department for Health and Social Care spokesman offered their “deepest condolences” to anyone affected by loss during the pandemic.

“We are incredibly grateful to NHS staff, including district and community nurses and volunteers, who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to deliver palliative and end-of-life care to people at the most difficult time of their lives,” said the spokesman.

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Reference: The Telegraph: Lizzie Roberts 

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