Appropriate Use of Psychotropic Medications in Nursing Homes

Appropriate Use of Psychotropic Medications in Nursing Homes

Pensioner taking his daily dose of pills

Modern medicine has made great advances in its ability to provide relief and treatment for individuals suffering the effects of psychiatric conditions such as depression and anxiety, and many older Americans certainly suffer from these conditions and can obtain benefits from psychotropic medications engineered to treat those conditions. Unfortunately, however, many nursing homes misuse and overuse psychotropic medications.  Instead of using psychotropic medications for their prescribed benefits to treat psychiatric conditions, many nursing homes use psychotropic medications to control the behavior of elderly persons, most often by using the sedative properties of the medications. Such use of psychotropic medications is inappropriate and can form the basis of an elder abuse claim by the resident.

Is the Medication Necessary?

Special protections are in place to ensure nursing homes and prescribing physicians only use psychotropic medications when necessary and appropriate.  These medications contain powerful chemicals that act on the resident’s brain to change mood, personality, behavior, and/or level of consciousness.  Prescribing physicians should only prescribe these medications to treat diagnosed psychiatric conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or schizoaffective disorder.  All too often, however, nursing homes and prescribing physicians use these medications to control behavior such as agitation, fear, or hostility.  These are not diagnosed medical conditions but rather are behaviors symptomatic of the elderly person’s environment.  These environmental behaviors should be addressed through nursing interventions rather than psychotropic medications.  

Statistics tell us, however, that physicians are prescribing psychotropic medications for reasons other than treating a diagnosed psychiatric condition. The AARP reported in 2014 that 1 in 5 nursing home residents “are given antipsychotic drugs that are not only unnecessary, but also extremely dangerous for older patients.”

The reasons cited for this epidemic of unnecessary medication by nursing home physicians include using the drugs as cost-saving mechanism to increase nursing home corporate profits, a response to inadequate training and resources within the nursing home, and illegal collusion between pharmaceutical companies and doctors to pay kickbacks for the drugs being prescribed.

The Issue of Informed Consent

Prescribing physicians are always supposed to obtain informed consent prior to administering psychotropic medications.  Informed consent is a two-way street.  The prescribing physician must disclose information to the resident or the legal decision-maker material to making a decision to accept or refuse the use of psychotropic medications and the resident or legal decision-maker must accept that treatment plan to use the drug before it is administered.  Failure to obtain informed consent before administering psychotropic medications is battery against the resident and may be the basis of an elder abuse claim.

One purpose of informed consent is to prevent abuses of exactly this kind where an organization profits off unnecessary and dangerous treatments. In our experience in representing elderly residents of nursing homes in elder abuse cases, however, we have frequently seen physicians and employees of nursing homes fail to fulfill the requirements of informed consent, with one doctor testifying under oath, “not only do I not get informed consent, but I don’t know of any doctor who does…”

Why Overmedication is Wrong and Dangerous

When residents enter nursing homes, they rightly expect to have their needs met in a way that honors them and does not victimize them in order to increase corporate profits. No elderly resident should have to unwillingly live in discomfort or confusion brought on by psychotropic medications to make up for a nursing home’s inadequate staffing or training. Furthermore, psychotropic medications often have injurious side effects and can lead to dangerous events like falls, which can be catastrophic and even deadly for an elderly person.

Put simply, unnecessary use of psychotropic medications – especially where used without informed consent – is dangerous and often qualifies as elder abuse under California law.

Contact Johnson Moore Today

At Johnson Moore, we know full well that elder abuse victims and their families often face stonewalling, denial, and even intimidation when they try to take action against elder abuse. Our attorneys are compassionate and determined advocates of the elderly, and we will take the time to fully understand your concerns and assess what steps we can take on your behalf. If you suspect overmedication of a nursing home resident, we look forward to hearing from you to help you explore your options for obtaining the justice you deserve. Contact Johnson Moore today to schedule a free consultation.

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