In the sixties, physicians routinely prescribed bed rest for patients who had suffered a heart attack. Then along came the recognition that bed rest led to clot formation in the lower extremities, clots that sometimes broke off and traveled to the lungs, causing potentially life-threatening pulmonary emboli. Bed rest also led to deconditioning—when patients finally were allowed to get up, they found they were often weak and wobbly. And so bed rest was out and early mobilization was in. But now, concurrent with a vigorous attempt to prevent falls among older hospitalized patients, bed rest is back in—and with more complications than ever, as reported in a thoughtful article in JAMA Internal Medicine last week.
In 2008, in response to the observation that “injurious falls” were responsible for increased hospital costs and were clearly bad for patients, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services introduced a program incentivizing hospitals to prevent falls. Currently, a fall resulting in significant injury (such as a fracture) is one of eight hospital-acquired conditions that collectively determine whether hospitals will be penalized for poor performance. To address the CMS initiative, hospitals introduced a variety of techniques designed to keep older patients from falling such as bed alarms and “fall risk” signs on the door. According to Growdon and colleagues, the result has been a “national epidemic of immobility among hospitalized older adults.”
Paradoxically, the means used by hospitals to prevent falls don’t work. Bed (and chair) alarms are ineffective—which is not entirely surprising, as by the time a nurse responds to the buzzer indicating the patient has gotten out of bed (or chair), the person is probably already on the floor. Even a multi-prong study from Australia using a variety of different approaches simultaneously was unsuccessful.
But all those bed alarms and signs on the door do achieve something, and that’s to keep patients at bed rest. And just as bed rest was bad for heart attack patients in the sixties, it’s bad for older patients today. Bed rest promotes the development of confusion (delirium) and worsens mobility, so when patients finally do get out of bed, either late in their hospital stay or after they get home, they are more likely to fall.
Growdon, a resident in internal medicine at a major Boston teaching hospital, and his colleagues at a VA Hospital in Florida and at Hebrew Senior Life, a teaching nursing home, are rightfully indignant. They advocate promoting mobility rather than penalizing falls, arguing that “although hospital falls can lead to harm, treating them as ‘never events’ has led to over implementation of measures with little efficacy for falls [prevention] yet profound contribution to immobility.” They are, no doubt, correct. But why? Why should an incentive program based on outcomes lead to the adoption of a strategy that does not lead to the desired outcome?
If CMS had used a process measure, if it had offered extra payments to hospitals that introduced fall prevention programs, I wouldn't have been surprised that it resulted in hospitals adopting programs for the sake of having something, regardless of efficacy. But instead it opted to penalize hospitals for performing poorly, which should by rights have led to hospitals choosing to take steps that made a difference. What is it about the culture of hospitals or the leadership of hospital CEOs or the knowledge base of physicians and nurses that lets them make such irrational choices?
I wish I knew the answer. In the meantime, perhaps CMS would do well to offer carrots rather than sticks, and to be specific about the kind of carrots that it likes the most. If programs that promote mobility work, directives to get patients out of bed early and to consult physical therapy—both to prevent falls and to maintain function—then it’s those specific programs it should endorse and pay for.--> -->