Elder Care Issue: Drug Abuse in Nursing Homes

This summer, one nursing home settled a massive class action suit against the facility for using powerful and dangerous drugs on its residents without their informed consent or consent from family members. One member of the suit was a daughter whose mother entered the facility for eighteen days for physical therapy for a broken pelvis. The nursing home had given her heavy medication, including many dangerous antipsychotics, and within a matter of weeks she was dead. This class action lawsuit was the first of its kind in the country, and with a growing issue of drug abuse in nursing homes it will most likely not be the last.

A Growing National Issue

Sadly, this case is not an isolated event. Researchers estimate that as many as one in five elderly patients in nursing homes are given powerful antipsychotics and other drugs that are wholly unnecessary. This growing trend comes from a variety of sources, including but not limited to inadequate training of staff, understaffing of facilities, and aggressive selling by pharmaceutical companies. The Center for Medicare Advocacy has been quoted as saying that “The misuse of antipsychotic drugs as chemical restraints is one of the most common and long-standing, but preventable, practices causing serious harm to nursing home residents today.”

Antipsychotic drugs are meant to help people with severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. The FDA specifically states on the boxes of these medications that they are not intended for the elderly population. Using these drugs on seniors can cause agitation, anxiety, confusion, disorientation, or even death.

Kickbacks for Doctors and Being Kept in the Dark

Multiple pharmaceutical companies, including giants Johnson & Johnson as well as Omnicare, have been fined billions of dollars for marketing drugs to nursing homes that were not approved by the FDA or deemed suitable for the elderly. Additionally, doctors were given kickbacks for prescribing these medications to their patients in nursing homes. Considering that so few doctors ever actually visit the facilities or are there so little, they do not see or care about the effects of the drugs on their patients.

Another reason for this growing problem is the law requiring informed consent is not being followed. Neither the patient nor their families are being told about the use of these drugs in the nursing homes. One reason is because of the lack of training for nursing assistants. With only seventy hours required for training, these staffers typically do not know that consent is required before administering these drugs. Because nursing homes are chronically undertrained and understaffed, so-called behavior problems can arise with the patients. The pharmaceutical companies market these drugs to nursing homes as a way to deal with that issue.

Searching for a Better Way

Thankfully, more nursing homes are now looking for a way to combat the issue of overmedicating its patients. One way nursing homes are dealing with this problem is by providing additional training for staff – both in requirements for federal regulations as well as how to deal with problem patients. Another way this issue is being addressed is by public outreach and advocacy. If more family members of nursing home patients know about the issue they can inquire with the nursing home about their loved one’s care. And now that one lawsuit has been successfully brought against a nursing home for drug abuse, hopefully it will serve as a deterrent to other facilities that misuse the same practice.

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