Burn Injuries Inflicted on Children or the Elderly: A Framework for Clinical and Forensic Assessment

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Learning Objectives:

After studying this article, the participant should be able to: 1. Understand the difference between battery and assault in U.S. law and the concepts of the phrase “child abuse” and “elder abuse.” 2. Understand that state statutes vary and can define abuse narrowly or with great specificity, and that either definition has inherent problems for physicians treating victims of abuse and neglect. 3. Know where to find the state-specific legal criteria for child or elder abuse and neglect, along with the corresponding standards for mandatory reporting and physician accountability. 4. Understand the relevant law regarding physician-patient privilege and the repercussions of incorrect but good faith reporting and of failing to report suspected abuse or neglect of children or the elderly. 5. Understand that there are no pathognomic signs for inflicted burn injury. 6. Clinically assess burned pediatric or elderly patients within a framework that will minimize the risk of missing or inappropriately suspecting injuries that stem from abuse or neglect.


This article deals with burns inflicted on children and the elderly, two particularly vulnerable societal groups. Though inflicted burning is a relatively rare method of inflicting physical abuse, failure to diagnose it has far-reaching ramifications. These injuries pose both medical and forensic problems for physicians, along with unique ethical dilemmas. This article is a collaboration between surgeons and lawyers providing a holistic, workable approach to the management of inflicted burn injury. The authors first describe the legal considerations that must be appreciated by U.S. physicians, then they suggest a rational and balanced clinical approach to the assessment of burn injuries that may have been inflicted intentionally or negligently on children and the elderly.

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