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Investigation Finds Nursing Home Overuse of Antipsychotics Correlates With Less Staff

As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I’ve kept a close eye on the issue of overuse of antipsychotics in nursing home patients. These powerful drugs are intended for use in people with serious mental illnesses, but they became popular in the past decade for “off-label” use to control the symptoms of dementia. That popularity plummeted more recently, when medical studies began showing an elevated risk of death or serious health problems like strokes among elderly dementia patients taking the drugs. A recent investigative series of stories from the Boston Globe reports that 185,370 Medicare and Medicaid patients took antipsychotics for inappropriate reasons in 2010, down dramatically from 237,510 in 2005. However, the data from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also showed that those homes that do continue using the drugs inappropriately tend to be understaffed.

The newspaper compiled a database using the federal data, which allows families considering nursing homes to look up each home’s use of antipsychotics. The database excludes homes with fewer than 50 residents, but includes 15,600 homes of 50 or more, from across the United States. Of those homes, 21 percent were giving inappropriate antipsychotic medications to a quarter of their residents or more. Even more tellingly, the newspaper found “a clear link” between low staffing levels and high use of antipsychotics. Homes that most often used the antipsychotics off-label had fewer registered nurses, who direct medical care, and nurses’ aides, who provide much of the hands-on care. The newspaper suggested that this is because lower staffing levels make it hard to find the time necessary to control the negative behaviors of dementia without drugs. By contrast, antipsychotics frequently have a sedative effect, leading some to call them “chemical restraints” in an analogy to the physical restraints homes once used.

This is a form of Pennsylvania nursing home abuse, as any Philadelphia injury lawyer will explain. All nursing home patients deserve to have their basic dignity respected, and that means not drugging them into insensibility or physically restraining them just because it’s convenient for the staff. Nor should this be done for the sake of profit for the nursing home’s parent company, which can save money on staffing by drugging patients and charging the cost of the drugs to Medicare or Medicaid. (Indeed, the Globe found homes that overused antipsychotics tended to have more patients enrolled in Medicaid.) But perhaps the worst thing about the practice of using antipsychotics in elderly dementia patients is that the drugs’ known side effects include a risk of death. In fact, the risk is clear enough that the FDA has ordered its strongest warning on the drugs’ labels, telling patients and doctors about the increased risk of stroke and serious cardiovascular problems for elderly patients with dementia. As a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer, I strongly suggest that patients and families trying to make a well-educated decision about nursing home care take advantage of the Globe’s report to determine which homes near them are misusing these powerful drugs.

If your family has suffered a death or serious injury at an abusive or neglectful nursing home in eastern Pennsylvania, don’t hesitate to call Rosenbaum & Associates. You can tell us your story and learn more about your legal rights from an experienced attorney. Call us toll-free today at 1-800-7-LEGAL-7 or send us a message online.

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