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Nursing Homes Accused of Falsely Diagnosing Residents With Schizophrenia

An old woman, sitting in a wheelchair at the the door of an institution

A nursing home abuse lawyer in Alabama explains why

Many nursing homes falsely diagnose residents with schizophrenia in order to prescribe powerful drugs with dangerous side effects that sedate residents and ultimately allow nursing homes to reduce staff members, according to a shocking new nursing home abuse investigation conducted by The New York Times.

“People don’t just wake up with schizophrenia when they are elderly,” said Dr. Michael Wasserman, a former nursing home executive who was interviewed by The New York Times. “It’s (schizophrenia diagnosis) used to skirt the rules.”

Fake diagnoses in nursing homes

According to The New York Times investigation, one in nine nursing home residents has been diagnosed as having schizophrenia. Such figures represent a 70 percent increase in schizophrenia diagnoses among nursing home residents since 2012, according to The New York Times.

In contrast, only 1 in 150 people have received a schizophrenia diagnosis during that same timeframe. This is because schizophrenia is a relatively rare medical condition, which is often hereditary. People diagnosed with schizophrenia often have symptoms (including hallucinations and delusions) before they’re 40 years old. As a result, it’s almost unheard of for older adults to suddenly develop schizophrenia later in life, according to medical professionals interviewed by The New York Times.

Why do nursing homes falsely diagnose residents?

The main reason for a fake schizophrenia diagnosis is so nursing homes can give residents powerful sedatives, which make nursing homes residents tired, docile, and easier to manage, according to The New York Times. Such drugs are often referred to as “chemical straight-jackets” and are often given to nursing homes residents who have medical conditions that require extra attention, including dementia.

By giving such powerful sedatives to nursing homes residents, understaffed nursing homes often don’t hire additional staff members. But these dangerous drugs put residents’ lives at risk, including doubling their odds of dying due to infections, heart failure, and other life-threatening health issues.

Worst of all, many families might not even realize which nursing homes are prescribing such powerful drugs based on a fake schizophrenia diagnosis. That’s because nursing homes do not have to release information about whether the drugs are being prescribed if a resident is diagnosed with schizophrenia or two other medical conditions.

“It is unacceptable for a facility to inappropriately classify a resident’s diagnosis to improve their performance measures,” Catherine Howden told the New York Times. Howden is a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a federal agency responsible for regulating nursing homes nationwide. “We will continue to identify facilities which do so and hold them accountable,” Howden said.

Officially, less than 15 percent of nursing home residents take antipsychotic medications. But that figure does not include residents diagnosed with schizophrenia. When such figures are taken into account, more than 21 percent of nursing home residents are taking powerful sedatives and other antipsychotic drugs, according to The New York Times investigation.

Nursing homes have been misusing powerful drugs for decades to sedate and control nursing home residents. In 1987, President Ronald Regan signed into law a ban on certain drugs in nursing homes due to widespread abuse, according to The New York Times. Even so, the practice of misusing powerful sedatives has persisted in nursing homes and continues to put residents at risk.

What to do if you suspect a fake diagnosis

If a family member has been diagnosed as having schizophrenia by a nursing home and you believe the diagnosis is wrong, don’t simply take the nursing home’s word for it. Take action right away to protect your loved one’s health and rights. Such steps in Alabama include:

  • Have a doctor examine your loved one right away and diagnose exactly what’s wrong. Make sure the doctor is not affiliated with the nursing home. Have an independent medical professional examine your family member right away.
  • Ask the nursing home to provide copies of all medical records related to your loved one’s schizophrenia diagnosis. If the nursing home refuses to do so, call a lawyer right away for help with your legal case.
  • If your doctor disagrees with the nursing home’s diagnosis, tell the nursing home right away and demand to know why your loved one has been misdiagnosed. If you’re not comfortable confronting the nursing home, contact a nursing home abuse lawyer right away who can assist you with the process.
  • Contact the office of Alabama’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman. This is the official state agency that investigates allegations of nursing home neglect and abuse.
  • If you have not already done so, talk to a nursing home abuse lawyer about your legal rights and options.

How an attorney can help

When you have an experienced attorney on your side, you're in a good position to hold everyone accountable for their actions. Nursing homes often hire lawyers and medical experts to protect their interests and dispute your claim, but a lawyer can help you level the playing field and fight for the justice your family deserves.

At Shuttlesworth Law Firm LLC in Birmingham, we have years of experience handling tough cases and getting results. We also work nursing home cases on contingency, which means no upfront money is required and you pay no legal fees unless we win your case. If we do obtain financial compensation on your behalf, our fee is a percentage of the final settlement or court award.

Learn more about how we can fight for your family’s rights. Contact our Birmingham law firm to schedule a free case evaluation today. We handle legal cases throughout the state.

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