Autonomy or Protection From Harm? Judgements of German Courts on Care for the Elderly in Nursing Homes
Journal of Medical Ethics 2007 September; 33(9): 534-537
The increase in life expectancy in developed countries has lead to an increase in the number of elderly people cared for in nursing homes. Given the physical frailty and deterioration of mental capacities in many of these residents, questions arise as to their autonomy and to their protection from harm. In 2005, one of the highest German courts, the Bundesgerichtshof (BGH) issued a seminal judgement that dealt with the obligations of nursing homes and with the preserving of autonomy and privacy in nursing home residents. An elderly woman had sustained a fracture of the neck of the femur during a fall. The health insurance company held that the nursing home had breached its obligations to protect her from falling and sued the home for the hospital costs of her treatment. However, the BGH maintained that the case of the health insurance was not justified. It held that obligations of nursing homes have to be limited to normal arrangements within reasonable financial and personal effort, and that the autonomy of residents had to be protected from unnecessary interference. Permanent control or even restraining measures to reduce each risk would deprive the patient fully of her autonomy, and must therefore be hindered. Other judgments of other courts have emphasised the "protectionist" approach. The article deals with these different approaches and comments on both rationales. It will be shown that both approaches must be differentiated to establish fully autonomy and protection for nursing home residents.
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