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Long-term Care and Patient Safety

September 7, 2019


The patient safety field has primarily focused on improving safety in hospital and ambulatory settings. Yet a large and growing number of Americans who do not require hospital-level care but are unable to be safely cared for at home reside in settings referred to as long-term care. These settings include skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), inpatient rehabilitation facilities, and long-term acute care hospitals. There were more than 1.6 million residents of SNFs in 2011, and long-term acute care hospitals admissions among Medicare beneficiaries have more than doubled over the past 15 years.

Patients in long-term care settings may be particularly vulnerable to safety problems in the course of their care. Patients requiring care in long-term care facilities are disproportionately older and chronically ill, and they often enter long-term care after an acute hospitalization. Health care utilization after entering long-term care is high—a study by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that nearly 25% of Medicare SNF residents require hospitalization each year.

Each type of long-term care setting provides different services and is suitable for different types of patients:

  • Long-term acute care hospitals care for medically complex patients expected to require care for weeks to months. These patients are often chronically critically ill, most commonly recovering from a hospitalization that included an intensive care unit stay. These facilities provide services very similar to acute care hospitals, including the ability to care for patients requiring mechanical ventilation, complex wound care, or hemodialysis. The facilities may be freestanding or attached to an acute hospital, and they are subject to the same licensing and credentialing requirements as traditional hospitals. Patients at long-term acute care hospitals generally require daily evaluation by a physician.
  • Inpatient rehabilitation facilities care for patients recovering from surgery, trauma, or an acute illness. They provide intensive rehabilitation—patients must be able to tolerate 3 hours of physical or occupational therapy daily—with the goal of restoring patients to their premorbid functional status. Care is overseen by a multidisciplinary team that includes a physician, typically a specialist in rehabilitation medicine.
  • Skilled nursing facilities generally care for patients who may be chronically ill but are considered medically stable. In general, these patients do not require daily evaluation by a physician but do require services such as physical therapy or wound care.

Patients often enter long-term care after an acute hospitalization. Data from 2011 indicates that nearly 40% of Medicare beneficiaries are discharged to some form of long-term care facility—most often a SNF—after hospital discharge. Therefore, the term postacute care is also used to refer to the utilization of long-term care facilities to provide continuing care after hospitalization. Postacute patients represent an increasing proportion of the overall SNF patient population, and these patients—who are often medically complex and frail—may tax the ability of SNFs to provide safe care. As a result of all these factors, the safety field is starting to examine and address safety issues faced by patients in long-term care.

Safety Concerns in Long-term Care

Preventable adverse events are common in long-term care. A 2014 report by the OIG found that 22% of Medicare beneficiaries in SNFs experienced an adverse event during their stay, half of which were preventable. More than half of the patients who experienced an adverse event at a SNF required hospitalization. A separate OIG report found an even higher incidence of adverse events at rehabilitation facilities. Among these are hazards that are well documented in older patients, such as medication errors, health care–associated infections, delirium, falls, and pressure ulcers. Adverse drug events were the most common type of adverse event in the OIG study as well as in other studies of long-term care populations. While patient complexity explains some of these events, it is also worth noting that computerized provider order entry and other medication safety strategies have not been implemented as widely in SNFs as in hospitals. Health care–associated infections—particularly catheter-associated urinary tract infections—are also common in long-term care, and efforts are underway to address this problem. A WebM&M commentary discusses the types of adverse events that occur in SNF patients in more detail and gives evidence-based recommendations for preventing these harms.

Establishing a robust culture of safety is essential for minimizing patient harm. Unfortunately, safety culture in many long-term care facilities is poorer than that found in hospitals and ambulatory clinics. A 2006 study using the AHRQ Hospital Survey on Patient Safety Culture found that nursing home administrators perceived safety culture in their facilities to be lower than hospital benchmarks across nearly all domains of the survey. AHRQ subsequently developed a safety culture survey instrument for nursing homes and has released biannual benchmarking data since 2008. The most recent (2014) data indicates overall improvement in long-term care safety culture, but respondents still raise concerns about potential patient harm due to inadequate staffing and an overly punitive culture.

Current Context

Improving safety in long-term care facilities will require research into the safety problems faced by patients, education and training of health care providers in long-term care settings, system-level interventions to enhance care coordination, and greater incentives for long-term care facilities to prioritize patient safety.

The federal government is leading many efforts to improve the safety and quality of care at long-term care facilities. The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Care Compare website allows patients and providers to compare long-term care facilities on various quality metrics, including measures of patient safety (such as the proportion of patients who experience a health care–associated infection). CMS has also proposed new revisions to long-term care facilities' conditions of participation in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, which explicitly emphasize a focus on ensuring the quality of care for long-term care facility residents. AHRQ is funding research to examine the epidemiology of adverse events in long-term care settings and identify effective preventive strategies. AHRQ has also developed a number of resources to examine and address safety in long-term care, including training programs for staff, an ongoing collaborative program to prevent catheter-associated urinary tract infections, and a guide to help nursing homes appropriately use antibiotics.

The Joint Commission offers accreditation programs for nursing care centers that provide postacute care services. These include SNFs and most inpatient rehabilitation facilities. The accreditation process emphasizes the importance of patient safety and efforts to prevent hospital admissions among long-term care patients. The Joint Commission National Patient Safety Goals for long-term care facilities were updated in 2016. These require SNFs to have measures in place to prevent specific clinical harms (such as falls, pressure ulcers, and health care–associated infections) and to conduct medication reconciliation. Long-term acute care hospitals and inpatient rehabilitation facilities are accredited in the same fashion as acute care hospitals, and they are subject to the same National Patient Safety Goals (which were also updated in 2016).

While these efforts are important (and are beginning to bear fruit), fundamental health care system issues must be addressed in order to improve safety in long-term care. As discussed in a 2015 WebM&M commentary, neither hospitals nor long-term care facilities are incentivized to improve care transitions under the current prospective payment system. CMS is developing novel care models and payment systems to encourage health care systems to prioritize safe care transitions between different types of facilities. Although the data on these new models—which include accountable care organizations, bundled payments for specific diagnoses, and financial penalties for hospitals with high readmission rates—is still preliminary, there are early indications that health care systems are shifting their orientation toward caring for patients across the continuum of care rather than in single episodes.

This project was funded under contract number 75Q80119C00004 from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The authors are solely responsible for this report’s contents, findings, and conclusions, which do not necessarily represent the views of AHRQ. Readers should not interpret any statement in this report as an official position of AHRQ or of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. None of the authors has any affiliation or financial involvement that conflicts with the material presented in this report. View AHRQ Disclaimers
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