Research finds overheating risks in care homes

Elderly residents in care homes could face health risks from summertime overheating, but little attention is being paid to the issue, new research has found.

The study, led by Professor Rajat Gupta from the low carbon building group at Oxford Brookes University, found that due to a perception that older people ‘feel the cold’, it wasn’t recognised that heat can also present a significant health risk. As a result, the design, commissioning and management of care schemes have focussed on providing warmth. In all four cases studied for the research, the heating was left on 24 hours a day, even during summer.

While care managers interviewed for the study were aware of the Public Health England heatwave plan, which offers guidance on how to prepare for, and respond to a heatwave, awareness among frontline staff was lower. Care scheme staff were more aware of short-term reactive measures, such as hydration, lighter clothing and mobile electric fans, but less aware of longer term measures that could address overheating such as external shading.

Gupta said: “We found that there was a risk of overheating in all the sites. A number of design and management issues were to blame for this, including confusion amongst care home staff about how to work heating and ventilation systems and confusion over whose responsibility it was to control the heating.

“Design solutions to address overheating were not commonplace in care settings.

“The lack of standardised overheating criteria across the built environment and health sectors is causing confusion. It is hindering the development of long-term strategies, which will combat heat-related illness and death in care homes.”

The study, Care provision fit for a future climate, was funded by Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Katharine Knox, policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said: “This is one of the first studies of its kind into the risks of overheating in the care sector in the UK due to increasing temperatures expected from climate change. The research shows that the risks of overheating are not just an issue for the future but are already a risk in hot weather today. This issue needs to be given more consideration in the design, management and operation of care homes to avoid negative health impacts for residents.”

The report found that there is no statutory maximum internal temperature for care schemes. The health sector has guidance on outdoor threshold temperatures at which heat-related death may increase, but there is a lack of guidance for indoor temperatures at which overheating occurs and the level of associated health risks. Although the building sector has several overheating measures, these focus on comfort rather than health risk.

The report says there is a need to raise awareness of heat risks in the care sector. At the local level it highlights a need to improve preparedness through developing local strategic responses with input from designers, development teams, care home managers and staff. It also recommends enhanced regulations, standards and guidance from key national health and care bodies and central government to address the risks of overheating.

The full report can be found online and supplementary case study reports can be found here. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Public Health England will be holding a free, one-day conference, Building climate resilience in health and social care, for health and social care professionals, where the findings of this research study will be discussed. The event will be held on 5 July at Leeds Becket University.

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