Although the use of antipsychotic drugs for nursing home residents suffering from dementia can increase their risk of death and falls, they are still prescribed for nearly 300,000 nursing home residents across the U.S. The “Nursing Home Patients Bill of Rights” allows their use only under specific conditions: “psychoactive drugs (including antipsychotics as well as drugs for depression and anxiety) may be administered only on the orders of a physician and only as part of a written plan designed to eliminate or modify the symptoms for which the drugs are prescribed. Such drugs may be given only if, at least annually, an independent, external consultant reviews the appropriateness of the drug plan of each resident receiving such drugs.”
Despite the risk of these drugs, and the requirement that their use be continually reviewed, some nursing home residents are given antipsychotic prescriptions and are never taken off them. In 2009, the staff of a small nursing home decided to embark on a program to reduce the use of antipsychotics. It was so successful that they extended the program to all the nursing homes owned by the nonprofit Ecumen. After the first year, antipsychotic use was reduced 97%. At the original facility, 5-7% of residents receive antipsychotics, compared to the national average of 19%.
The change in the residents’ quality of life was dramatic after the program was instituted. Because the residents “came alive and awakened”, they called the program Awakenings. To understand how the program works, it’s helpful to imagine the program being the solution to the problem of overuse of antipsychotics in nursing homes.
First, viewing the problem with respect to the organization’s goals can help determine what the real issue to be addressed is. In this case, resident safety and resident quality of life are two important goals of a nursing home. Resident safety is impacted by the use of antipsychotics because it increases the risk of death and the risk of falls. Resident quality of life is impacted because the use of antipsychotics was not being effectively re-evaluated as required.
The risk of increased death and falls are both related to the use of antipsychotics, which have been found to increase death in those with dementia and also increase the risk of falls. Generally the residents at the nursing home were found to have been prescribed antipsychotics as an intervention to some type of behavior resulting from the dementia (wandering, aggression, resisting care) and the resident’s need for antipsychotics was not effectively re-evaluated, so residents remained on the drugs.
A program to reduce their use had to address both of these causes. The nursing home team consulted with experts to begin weaning patients off the antipsychotics. The Awakenings process then addressed the behaviors being treated with the medication. For each resident, both the medical and personal history is taken into account while developing a care strategy. The care strategy is distributed to the entire care team, including housekeepers and cooks. The care strategy uses as many non-medication-based interventions as possible – and addresses all of the resident’s five senses. Some of the strategies include balloon volleyball, massage, aromatherapy and white noise. For those familiar with the Plan-Do-Check(Study)-Act, this is the “Plan” step.
The care plan is implemented by all staff (Do) and all staff participate in observation and assessment to monitor problem behaviors or other issues (Check/ Study). When issues do arise, the care plan is adjusted – whenever possible, without use of additional medication (Act). The process is described by the Awakenings program like this: “Long-term antipsychotic use masks behavioral symptoms rather than addressing them. Awakenings discovers unmet needs that often trigger behavioral symptoms and addresses the triggers with non-pharmacological care techniques. This is done in collaboration with a physician to reach the optimum balance and benefit of non-pharmacological and biomedical approaches.” Although the initial setup is expensive; as Dr. Mark Lachs, chief of geriatrics at Weill Cornell Medical College says, “Behavioral interventions are far more time-consuming than giving a pill”, the staff is pleased with the results and optimistic for the future. Laurel Baxter, the Awakenings project manager says, “I believe we may learn that spending a little time now with a resident, preventing the use of psychiatric medications and their side effects, you’ll save time and money in the long run. I’m optimistic.”
To see the root cause analysis of antipsychotic overuse in a Cause Map (or visual diagram of cause-and-effect relationships) and the Awakenings process, please click on “Download PDF”.