The truth behind the care at a skilled nursing facility

Reuters recently published an article on skilled nursing facilities and post-hospital stays.  They discussed the often-lengthy time between hospital discharge and the patient being seen by a physician or “an advanced care practitioner.”

Older, more infirm and cognitively impaired patients tend to be seen later than other patients. The later you are seen, the more likely it is that you will be sent back to the acute care hospital and be readmitted.  The study was conducted by Kira Ryskina of the Perlman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The researchers looked at Medicare claims from nearly 2.4 million patients discharged from acute care hospitals. Her data indicated that when patients were seen by doctors at the facility soon after discharge they tended to recover more often not requiring acute readmission to the hospital for the same problem.

The author went on to say that most families confronted with a family member requiring post-hospital rehabilitation at a skilled nursing home do not know what to expect from a skilled nursing facility (SNF).  The truth is, most doctors who practice in the inpatient setting or in surgical and medical specialties have no idea what to expect. They have never gone into one, unless it is for their own recovering family member, and they have never cared for a patient on a daily basis in one.

My first month as a private physician in 1979, my employer took me to the local facilities to meet the administrators, charge nurses and social workers at the facilities. The medical director was a young internist who had no private outpatient office or practices just a nursing home practice at five institutions he called on.  I was told that the law required me to see new patients within 24 hours of arrival, examine them and write a note and review all orders and either approve or change them.  I was surprised that the facilities were staffed with only one registered nurse per 40 patients. The RN was required to pass the medications each shift, with most patients being on multiple medications so that most RNs had little time per shift to do much else but pass the medications.

When a patient had a complication or problem, the nursing staff called the family member and the doctor. The volume of calls was so immense that the young facility medical director could not find any physicians who would agree to cross-cover with him on the weekends so he could get some time off.  In most cases, even if I decided the phone call related medical problem could be dealt with at the facility, the family decided otherwise and wanted their loved one transported to the ER. Those of us who cared for patients at these SNFs joked that the protocol for caring for a problem was to call 911 and copy the chart for transfer.

It used to disturb me that EMS services were being diverted to these facilities for non-critical issues taking them away from true emergencies, and delaying response times, but they seemed to like it.  The more trips they were called on, the more evidence they could present for a larger share of the city or county budget.

At some SNFs there was always an EMS bus or ambulance sitting in the parking lot outside.  The patients were insured by Medicare guaranteeing bill payment, so the receiving emergency department and staff were happy as well.

We were required to see the patient monthly and write a note. I saw sicker and less stable patients more often than monthly.  Progress in rehabilitation was discussed at mid-day care planning conferences that the physicians were rarely made aware of.  My goal for discharge was when the patient could safely transfer from the bed to a walker or wheelchair, get to the bathroom and on and off the toilet safely and; get in and out of a car. If the family could convert their home into a “skilled nursing facility” the patient could go home as well.  Often the patient was sent home by the facility “magically cured” when their insurance benefits ran out.

Most of the work at the facilities is performed by lower-paid aides. In my area of practice, most of the aides are men and women of color from the Caribbean who have little in common with the mostly Caucasian elderly population they care for. The work is hard and the pay low with the employee turnover rate extraordinarily high annually at most institutions. The patients are elderly, chronically ill, often with impaired cognition, hearing, and vision. Their family’s vision of what should be done is vastly different from what can be accomplished.  I believe most of the staff are caring and well-meaning just understaffed and undertrained.  Administrations concerns about liability from medical malpractice, elder abuse, and other issues is well founded based on the plethora of ads on prime time TV, newspapers and the sides of traveling public buses touting law firms seeking elder care cases.

It is now harder and harder to see patients at these facilities even if you wish to.  While community-based physicians with local hospital privileges were once welcomed and encouraged to attend to their patients at the facility, now the facilities require doctors to go through a lengthy credentialing process — as if you were applying for hospital staff privileges.   When you actually show up and care for your patients you rarely see a physician colleague. Most of the care is assessed and provided by nurse practitioners and physician assistants working for physicians who rarely, if ever, venture into the facilities. They may supervise the care plan on paper but rarely lay eyes or hands on the patient.

These facilities serve a vital role in the post-acute hospital care of patients. According to this study and article, Medicare spent $60 billion dollars in 2015 on this care. When a hospitalized patient has a frail spouse or no spouse at home, with no local nuclear family able to provide home care, the SNF is the only real option.

I suggest families visit the potential choices first. Speak to patients and their families about the care and services.  Review online state inspection and violations records. Ask about the transition from the hospital to the SNF. Who will be responsible for caring for them at the facility?  Meet them and talk to them. Make sure you are on the same page. If you can find a facility that has an onsite physician team with a geriatrician as the chief medical provider.  It may be the best option.

For these transitions to work and save money by stopping the revolving door from hospital to SNF to emergency room for every medical question, the SNF’s need some form of sovereign immunity from frivolous lawsuits if their services and care meet the legally required standards. The recent post-hurricane heat-related tragedy at a Hollywood, Florida nursing home underscores the need for vigilant inspection and regulation of this industry. The good homes need to be identified and need to be given the support and latitude required to care for this ever increasing portion of our American society.

Steven Reznick is an internal medicine physician and can be reached at Boca Raton Concierge Doctor.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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