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Unauthorized use of antipsychotic drugs in nursing homes

On Behalf of | Nov 16, 2020 | Medication Errors

Antipsychotic drugs are a category of drug designed to treat severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. The drugs have an incredibly powerful sedative effect, which can render a patient virtually catatonic. They are only meant to treat patients suffering from a psychotic episode involving such symptoms as hallucinations and delusions. They are not intended to be a catch-all sedative treatment for non-psychotic patients expressing pain or distress.

However, default sedation through antipsychotics is commonly employed by nursing staff in senior living communities around the country.

Unauthorized sedation

A recent report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) – which examined over 100 nursing homes around the United States – found that staff regularly treat agitated dementia patients with antipsychotic drugs as a means of making them more obedient – thereby lessening the staff’s workload. In addition to the zombie-like effect these drugs have on patients, the use of antipsychotics on dementia patients also nearly doubles their risk of death.

How common is this problem?

Although the above practice is in violation of both federal regulations and international human rights law, HRW found that the government rarely enforces these regulations. In addition, citations have rarely resulted in financial penalties for the nursing homes, so nursing homes have had limited incentive to modify their practices.

Thus, the practice remains rather common. Nationally, 16% of nursing home residents receive antipsychotic drugs without the appropriate diagnosis without the appropriate diagnosis – and without patient or family consent. That amounts to approximately 176,000 people.

HRW and other advocacy groups are pushing for tougher government enforcement of nursing home treatment regulations. They cite the elderly as a vulnerable group whose rights are frequently overlooked. They contend that using antipsychotics in the above manner is cruel and inhuman.


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