Do Nursing Home Lawsuits Lead to Better Care?

Choosing the right nursing home for a loved one is never an easy task. It can be both emotionally draining and logistically daunting. Still, this legwork is vital, especially in light of recent research reported in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and here in the New York Times Blogs – about the ineffectiveness of nursing home litigation and legal standards.

As the NY Times points out, “We tend to think of a lawsuit as a kind of slingshot allowing the little guy to take on a daunting Goliath – a large nursing home chain, say. If you can’t persuade a facility to provide proper care, if your elderly relative has suffered unnecessarily as a result, then you can sue.”

 We also hope that the risk of such lawsuits serve a preventive purpose, ensuring that nursing home provide the type of attentive care for our loved ones that they should.

If this were true, researchers suggest that we ought to see lawsuits piling up against the worst institutions, and that the better ones would see significantly fewer lawsuits.

Unfortunately, the finding of the NEJM indicates that there is not a significant relationship between the quality of the nursing home (as determined by Medicare and Medicaid surveys) and the risk that one or more lawsuits will be claimed against that nursing home (as determined statistically from records.) “Good” nursing homes stand a 40 percent chance of being sued, while the worst institutions only stood only a slightly greater chance at 47 percent.

 “It seems a fairly modest difference between the very best and the very worst facilities,” concluded Dr. David Stevenson, a health policy analyst at Harvard Medical School and an author of the analysis.

The NEJM goes on to conclude that “The results of this study raise questions about the capacity of tort litigation to provide incentives for improving the quality and safety of nursing home care. It is far from clear that superior performance will be rewarded with substantially lower risks of being sued.”

If this is indeed true, there are broad implications for the nursing home industry and the agencies charged with overseeing it.

But what does it mean to you? It means that in-depth research is key! It might not be enough that there are laws in place to enforce high standards, or that the threat of a lawsuit will force institutions to improve their performance. No, you must do your homework when selecting a nursing home for a loved one.

And, as one writer commented on the NY Times blog, if you have a loved one in a nursing home, you are well-advised to be polite but pushy, persistent and present.

You can learn more about options for nursing home care on our website.

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