The overuse of antipsychotic drugs “is one of the most common and longstanding, but preventable practices causing serious harm to nursing home residents today,” Toby Edelman of the Center for Medicare Advocacy told the Senate Aging Committee last week.

She said these drugs are often used off-label (that is: for purposes other than the ones for which the FDA approved them) and that overuse both costs Medicare hundreds of millions of dollars and harms patients.  

Last year, an investigation by the federal Department of Health & Human Services inspector general found that 14 percent of nursing home residents were prescribed anti-psychotics but 8 in 10 were off-label, and, thus, not for treatment of mental illness.

Still, this is not a simple issue. Sometimes, aides cannot provide basic hygiene for dementia patients without the use of these meds. Patients can be too violent or agitated for an aide to change their diaper or bathe them.

Edelman said the Center is not opposed to all uses of these medications but rather wants nursing facilities to try other solutions first.  

Alternatives to drugs can be time consuming and may require special skills. For example, a patient may react poorly to a specific aide—not because the aide is not competent but because there is something about her that triggers agitation. A nursing home can figure this out and make adjustments. But it takes time and training.

Similarly, many dementia patients resist being given a shower, so bed baths may reduce agitation and be more appropriate. Yet, this too requires taking the time to understand why the patient or resident is uncomfortable and finding a better solution.  

Alternative therapies, such as music and other non-pharmacologic solutions,  may also work, although we need more evidence-based research to know for sure.

Dr. Jonathan Evans, the incoming president of the American Medical Directors Assn., urges that caregivers learn ways to better understand why a patient’s behavior changes and to address the causes.  But, for too many facilities, it is easier to give a patient a pill.

This fall, the Consumer Consortium for Advancing Person Centered Care and the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affiairs, with the support of the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging, will hold a forum on non-drug interventions for people with dementia. The goal will be to develop consensus best practices for the use of non-drug alternatives.  (Full disclosure: I serve as an unpaid member of the leadership council of the consortium’s parent organization).

This initiative follows an Aging Committee hearing last fall on the issue.  The use of anti-psychotics is an important and complex issue. This is an opportunity for medical professionals, nursing facilities, researchers, and consumers to work together to find cutting-edge ways to care for dementia patients in the safest and most effective ways possible.