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Overmedicating and Phony Diagnosis in Nursing Homes — How to Protect Your Loved Ones

Daughter caring for overmedicated mother in West Virginia nursing home.

A recent New York Times investigation found the percentage of nursing home residents diagnosed with schizophrenia has soared 70 percent since 2012. 

Today, about 1 out of 9 nursing home residents in West Virginia and throughout the US has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. How can that be possible when schizophrenia in the general population affects only about one in 150 people? Also, schizophrenia, which often causes delusions and hallucinations, is almost always diagnosed before the age of 40.

“People don’t just wake up with schizophrenia when they are elderly,” said Dr. Michael Wasserman, a geriatrician and former nursing home executive who has become a critic of the industry. “It’s used to skirt the rules.”

Nursing Homes and Their Use of Antipsychotic Medication

Why Would a Nursing Home Drug Its Patients?

To understand this issue, it’s important to understand why nursing homes use these potentially harmful medications in the first place. These drugs are intended to be prescribed as a way to control schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, theoretically controlling the patient and creating a safer environment for the patient and the care providers. This makes sense, of course, as a nursing-home resident who is frantic and out-of-control could hurt themselves or others. 

These drugs can help sedate a nursing home patient, creating easier and safer care management, at least in theory. In reality, however, these antipsychotic drugs can become potentially harmful, causing a myriad of health concerns. Even more concerning, these drugs may be given to residents who don’t actually have dementia or other mental-health issues. For example, about 20% of nursing home residents are given antipsychotic drugs, when only 2% of the population will ever receive a diagnosis recognized by the federal government as one warranting such medications.

How Often are Patients Drugged, Over-Drugged?

These drugs, as we noted above, can be an important part of safe and effective care. But it appears that there is often a rush to use the drugs even when they are not needed. Understaffed nursing homes, for example, may use the sedatives as a way to control patients, but wouldn’t this be a form of nursing home abuse and neglect? 

A recent New York Times investigation suggests these drugs are often prescribed in nursing homes when they are not needed or when it may be unsafe to administer to patients. The New York Times article, which shed light on a variety of problems with these drugs in nursing homes, says that 21% of residents are on antipsychotic drugs of some kind. 

This problem is not new. A Health and Human Services report from the summer of 2011 found that many facilities “fail to comply with federal regulations designed to prevent overmedication, giving nursing home patients antipsychotic drugs in ways that violate federal standards for unnecessary drug use.” 

Perhaps most disturbing from the report, the Department of Health and Human Services noted that one if five residents (20%) were receiving the antipsychotic drugs in a way that violated the government’s standards. This could include a dosage that was too high or a patient who may have been on the drug for too long. 

The Dangers of Overmedicating the Elderly in Nursing Homes

The use of antipsychotic drugs to control patients has been compared to a straight jacket. Instead of a physical straight jacket, patients are given drugs that place them in a vegetative state. For decades, in fact, these drugs have been criticized as “chemical straight jackets.” 

The drugs are particularly dangerous for older individuals and people with dementia. In fact, the drugs are so concerning that nursing homes are required to report the number or residents that are being treated with these substances. However, the government does not disclose figures on how many patients with schizophrenia are given these drugs. This makes it incredibly hard for the public to grasp the overall use and severity of these drugs. 

These drugs create a sedated state, which can alter consciousness and negatively impact someone’s ability to interact with their surroundings. 

The effects of the drugs can go beyond creating a vegetative state that severely decreases quality of life. The effects will vary depending on the specific drug being administered, but the risks can include irregular heartbeats (cardiac arrhythmia), dangerously low blood pressure (postural hypotension), and deadly falls. 

A report from the Human Rights Watch claims that nursing homes in the United States give antipsychotic drugs to nearly 180,000 people who do not have a proper diagnosis for medications. This is a scary figure, but there are ways that you can hold irresponsible nursing homes accountable for their actions. 

How to Determine if the Your Loved One is Being Over Overmedicated in a Nursing Home

Changes in your loved ones behavior is sometimes a sign there’s been a change to your loved one’s medication. Signs to look out for include sleeping more, increased confusion, grogginess, and significant decrease in energy. On the other hand, new ailments or the progression of chronic conditions like dementia may be the cause of these behavior changes. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to help determine if your loved one is being drugged or overmedicated, including the below.

  1. When you notice substantial change in your loved one’s behavior, ask the nursing station supervisor if there have been any changes to your loved one’s health status or medications in the last 24 to 48 hours.
  2. Verify explanations of these changes by examining your loved one’s chart.
  3. Discuss your concerns with the director of nursing and your loved one’s physician.
  4. Request that changes to your loved one’s health status and medication be reported to you or or family caregivers as part of your loved one’s overall plan of care.
  5. Keep a log of any discussions and new information you receive when speaking with the nursing staff.

How to Report Adult Abuse and Neglect in West Virginia

If you suspect your loved one, any adult, is being abused and/or neglected in West Virginia, you can call the 24 hour Hotline dedicated to handling reports of such abuse. That number is 1-800-352-6513. The West Virginia Ombudsman Program is also dedicated to enhance the quality of life, improve the level of care, protect individual rights, and promote the dignity of each senior citizen and/or person with a disability, of any age, housed in a long-term care facility. Long-term care facilities include nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and other types of care homes.

Nursing Homes Can Be Held Responsible

Overmedication may be the result of nursing home negligence or intentional misconduct. 

Intentional overmedication is a serious form of nursing home abuse in West Virginia and beyond, and criminal charges could be brought against both the individual caregiver or the entire facility.

In some cases, negligent training and supervision by the nursing home may be at fault. For example, a West Virginia nursing home may have known that a staff member overmedicated a resident in the past but failed to provide adequate training to prevent future overmedication of nursing home residents. 

Another risk to look out for is when residents are overmedicated by mistake, which can happen when patients are on numerous medications at one time. If staff members are not thoroughly trained on administering medication, duplicate or mistaken medication can occur, amounting to medical malpractice.

Get a Free Nursing Home Abuse and Neglect Case Evaluation by a WV Nursing Home Lawyer

If your loved one has been injured or a victim of wrongful death due to either the intentional or negligent mistreatment by a nursing home, we invite you to call us for a Free Consultation. Filing a claim can help your family and can help prevent future nursing home abuse and neglect. Our toll free number is 1-877-943-9378 (WEST).

West Law Firm is located in Charleston, West Virginia just a few blocks from the WV Capitol. We represent injured clients and families who have lost a loved one throughout the state of West Virginia.

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