How Skilled Nursing Can Ride Out a Wave of Bad Press

For some, any press is good press. But this phrase isn’t true for the skilled nursing and senior care space, which is facing a wave of negative media attention — including a damning article in Time Magazine that brought to light major concerns of abusive behavior toward residents and binding arbitration contracts that left some families in a tough spot.

Time isn’t the only publication to shine a light on the dark spots of the senior care industry, however. Other disasters, including breakdowns during recent weather events that led to resident deaths, have also sparked outrage in the press.

For victims and their families, these nightmares blew the lid off the secrets within the industry, but for do-gooders who work and operate senior care communities, the fallout has also had an impact.

Community-level effect

For those on the front lines, the stories also have a negative effect on staff members of communities where seniors are thriving.

“It projects such a bad image of their work,” Charles de Vilmorin, CEO of LinkedSenior and founder of the “Old People Are Cool” campaign, told Skilled Nursing News. “The industry, especially the front-line staff, are definitely people who like to feel needed, and they are all there because of their passion. A lot are underpaid and overworked. They are really undervalued. When these stories come out, it’s very disheartening for them.”

Fortunately, when negative stories do come to light, they are taken very seriously by the industry, and they often do help providers raise the bar of the quality of care that they provide.

“These stories are good — if in fact they highlight issues or problems we all need to be aware of, [as the] provider or the consumer,” Maribeth Bersani, COO of senior living industry group Argentum, told SNN. “We take these articles very seriously. The staff of senior living are compassionate, and they do this because of their compassion. … We take it seriously if something need to be improved.”

Argentum has taken steps to promote best practices for its membership of senior living providers across an array of issues — including ensuring that arbitration agreements are clear and understood in admission contracts.

As stories involving elder abuse garner also more attention, consumers are also more likely to be more stringent when seeking out a community for themselves or loved ones, asking providers about their policies on background checks, elder abuse training, and reporting, according to Bersani.

However, the negative publicity appears to be ramping up, according to Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association (AHCA). The horror stories in senior living are also coming at a time when the quality of care has never been higher among the skilled nursing industry he said.

“One reason it’s discouraging is because when there are these individual horrible incidents, the overall quality improvement by the sector is really impressive,” Parkinson, who also served as Governor of Kansas, told SNN.

“We made a decision years ago that we could never win a battle of anecdotes, but to be super focused on the quality of care and the data to show that we are improving the quality. Seven years later, we have the data. By any objective standard, the quality of nursing care is better than it’s ever been,” he said.

In 16 out of 18 quality improvement markers measured by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), nursing care has improved, including reducing hospital readmissions and lowering the use of anti-psychotic medications, Parkinson said.

Yet a regulatory or legislative response to an isolated negative incident is not always the answer, Parkinson said.

“When you’re a policymaker, the natural response to a horrible incident is to want to pass a law to fix it,” he said. “[That’s] the immediate reaction for any facility — skilled nursing facilities, hospitals, anything you are regulating. Sometimes it makes sense to do that and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s important policymakers are thoughtful in their response so they are not overreacting in creating an unmanageable, burdensome law in response to a situation.”

Sparking change

Of course, the most positive outcome of negative press sometimes is in fact a legislative or regulatory change. In the case of a nursing home where 14 residents died as a result of a power outage in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in 2017, the state of Florida developed new requirements for care centers to be equipped with backup generators.

“Because of the deaths in the Hollywood Hills, it prompted the regulatory action,” Lynne Katzma, CEO of Juniper Communities, told SHN.
Juniper, which is based in Bloomfield, N.J. and operates 22 communities — including some in Florida, where employees worked during the storm.

As part of the company’s philosophy of transparency, Katzman herself blogged throughout the storm, updating followers with pictures and information in the area. Telling the positive side of senior living and care is just as important as sharing what goes wrong; staying in touch with families, friends, and loved ones as a care provider is essential to promoting the positive impression of senior living and promoting the work that is done.

“We don’t only call families when there is a problem,” Katzman explained. ”We reach out on a regular basis and check in, tell them what’s going on in the building, how to be involved, how the loved one is doing. So when there is a problem, it’s not the only thing you hear.”

Written by Amy Baxter

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Amy Baxter