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Study: Nursing homes overuse dangerous antipsychotic drugs

A new study says that nursing homes throughout the U.S. are misusing dangerous drugs to sedate residents.

A recent study by the widely respected non-profit group Human Rights Watch says that nursing homes throughout the United States are misusing potentially deadly antipsychotic drugs on patients with dementia. The study was based on more than 100 visits to nursing facilities in the U.S. and on 300 interviews with patients, their families, facility staff, disability experts, and more. The results show that 16 percent of people living in nursing homes are given antipsychotic medication without having been given a diagnosis that would make the use of such drugs appropriate.

Doubles the risk of death

Antipsychotic drugs are designed to treat patients who have been diagnosed with serious psychiatric conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and serious depression. However, many nursing homes use the drugs as a way to sedate patients who are suffering from dementia. The drugs have not been approved for the treatment of dementia and their use on dementia patients can double those patients’ risk of death.

The drugs carry “black box” warnings, which are the strongest possible warnings that the Federal Food and Drug Administration can attach to a drug. The “black box” indicates that dementia patients are at increased risk of death if given antipsychotic drugs. Despite those warnings, the Human Rights Watch study found that more than 175,000 people with dementia in nursing homes, or 16 percent of the nursing home population, have been given antipsychotic medication. The report noted that overworked and improperly trained nursing home staff often use the drugs as a way to keep residents docile and easy to control.

Experts question decline in use

Surprisingly, that 16 percent figure is actually a major improvement compared to recent years. In 2011, for example, about 24 percent of nursing home residents had been given antipsychotic drugs. However, as Newsweek reports, many patient-safety experts are suspicious about how that rapid decline was achieved. Many such experts worry that nursing homes are instead using other drugs as “chemical restraints” that may be just as dangerous as antipsychotic drugs.

Another problem in tackling the problem is that nursing homes who medicate residents with the drugs rarely face any penalties for doing so. The report, for example, notes that there have been 7,000 citations related to inappropriate use of antipsychotic drugs issued to nursing homes under the 1987 Nursing Home Reform Act. However, 97 percent of those citations never resulted in any financial penalties.

Help for nursing home abuse victims

Families of nursing home residents expect their loved ones to receive the best care possible in their new homes. Sadly, many nursing homes are understaffed, nurses are overworked, and as a result residents do not receive the care they deserve. For families of residents who may have been abused, help is available. A qualified attorney can help the families of nursing home abuse victims pursue justice, including by bringing forward claims for compensation against those who may have caused harm to their loved ones.