Standardization is key to keeping seniors safe in long-term care homes

Groups that work to improve standards in healthcare recently announced the launch of a new committee for national standards in long-term care homes — welcomed news, especially for those who have a loved one living in a seniors’ care home. The groups say they will develop standards focused on resident- and family-centred practices, and will also consider the needs of long-term care workers. 

This move is incredibly important. 

It’s become painfully clear over the past year what happens when the standard of care is not consistent. We’ve seen how dangerous it is when efficient protocols aren’t in place to keep both residents and staff healthy and safe.

While much attention has rightfully been focused on COVID-19, what people aren’t talking about is the need to standardize the way we address common health issues long-term residents face outside of the pandemic — health issues that often land them in the hospital even though they can be well managed in the home. These include diabetes, wounds and continence issues. 

Unnecessary hospital stays increase seniors’ exposure to viruses and other infectious diseases. They also add to health spending as the cost of a standard hospital stay in Ontario is more than $5,000. The average cost of a visit to the emergency department in Canada is $304. This is particularly concerning when the demand for elder care is expected to double by 2031, a new report by the Canadian Medical Association found. 

The Ontario government says it wants to end hallway medicine and reduce avoidable hospital transfers and emergency department visits. Providing tools to support excellent care is an important strategy to impact affected seniors. Long-term care homes play a significant role in helping to accomplish this, and a greater effort towards national standardization is absolutely key. 

We believe in the widespread adoption of tools and personalized treatment plans that make it easier for long-term staff — including nurse practitioners and personal support workers — to do their jobs safely and effectively, not just in times of crisis, but every day.

As healthcare providers who work in acute and long-term care, we are champions of decision support tools. These tools are designed for long-term care homes and help staff assess and manage residents’ health conditions in the home. Decision support tools look like digital checklists — picture an iPad with a comprehensive questionnaire on the screen — that easily guide staff through a series of standardized, evidence-based questions for various health conditions. Information from the tools document crucial clinical information and automate personalized care planning.

A diabetes tool, for example, allows staff to track changes in residents’ blood sugar levels and document the provided treatment for full visibility, which is key when staff change shifts. This ongoing monitoring means fewer diabetic emergencies, improving both patient health outcomes and reducing health spending. 

We see the value of these decision support tools in practice every single day.

We see nurse practitioners offer preventive care, make diagnoses and guide treatment plans for residents. We see consistency of practice when all staff follow the same standardized protocols. We see fewer seniors visiting hospitals for non-urgent issues, which not only improves their physical but also mental well-being.

Long-term care homes are facing staff shortages. Stigma, trauma, and exhaustion are leading to more workers leaving the industry. We need to take the learnings from the pandemic and address health issues beyond COVID-19 in an evidence-based standardized approach.

All seniors deserve the highest quality of care, and long-term care staff deserve the tools to help them do their incredibly vital job. 

The well-being of our society depends on it. 

Kirsten Lewis is a registered nurse and the senior VP of clinical research and development at Think Research. Monica Klein-Nouri is the director of care at long-term care home Isabel and Arthur Meighen Manor