Every year, about one-quarter of the 1.4 million American nursing home residents are hospitalized. Most of them survive the experience and go back to the same nursing home from whence they came. But like their community-dwelling counterparts, they often suffer from one or more adverse events after discharge, despite the documentation that is supposed to travel with them from the hospital to the nursing home, and despite the nursing staff that cares for them on their return and the physicians who attend to them shortly after their arrival. How often do they experience such adverse events? How serious are they? And can they be prevented? A new study in JAMA Internal Medicine attempts to provide the answers.
To analyze what happens when nursing home residents travel from the hospital back to their nursing home of origin, the authors of the study sampled 32 nursing homes from the 762-member New England Nursing Home Quality Collaborative. They identified all residents who made the nursing home-to-hospital-and back-journey over a nearly two-year period ending on December 31, 2017. They hired and trained nurse reviewers to study the records of these patients and, after further physician review, came up with 379 adverse events.
Classifying these episodes on a four-part scale ranging from not serious to fatal, they found that fully 38 percent were serious, another 7 percent were life-threatening, and 2 percent proved fatal. In terms of the type of episode, over half (52 percent) were related to “resident care,” i.e. involved a pressure ulcer, skin tear, or fall. The biggest chunk were due to heath care acquired infections (29 percent), with medication-related episodes accounting for 17 percent. In the judgment of the physician reviewers, fully 70 percent were either preventable or ameliorable.
What’s going on here? Why did so many long-term care residents suffer an adverse event after hospitalization? Clearly, this is a very vulnerable population. The patients tend to be very old and very frail, otherwise they wouldn’t live in a nursing home. That means they are particularly susceptible to common health care acquired infections such as c. difficile. Often weak before their hospitalization, they are typically weaker—and at greater risk of falling and of skin tears—after being ill, with associated immobility and poor nutrition. Is there a fix? Are many of these events truly preventable or at least ameliorable?
Most likely, improving this sad situation will require additional effort by both hospital and nursing home personnel. At the hospital level, early mobilization is essential, as is adequate attention to nutrition. Avoiding high risk medications, whether those predisposing to c diff or those apt to trigger delirium, is of utmost importance. At the nursing home level, assuming that whatever-worked-before-will-work again is probably the major impediment to change. Simply re-instituting the previous regimen—the same diet and the same degree of independent ambulation—or mindlessly accepting the new medication list sent over from the hospital predisposes to problems.
As is so common in geriatrics, we may know what to do but don't make the effort to do it. To incentivize the relevant staff to do what’s necessary, we may need to design a system in which facilities are paid extra to go the extra mile. Maybe nursing homes that take their residents back from the hospital without an intervening skilled nursing facility (“rehab”) stay should be paid extra for the days they should be functioning more like a short stay SNF. Maybe Medicare payments to hospitals should be adjusted to account for frailty, with hospitals whose nursing home patients do well after discharge getting a bonus for outstanding care. Perhaps hospitals and nursing homes need to take shared responsibility for the welfare of long-term care residents, using a shared electronic medical record system, “warm” hand-offs, and even shared staff. If we really want to improve a manifestly improvable system, maybe we should do all the above.