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Gastroenteritis More Dangerous at Nursing Homes with Inadequate Staff

Gastroenteritis is very common among nursing home residents. U.S. nursing homes acknowledge experiencing over 1,000 acute outbreaks of it each year, with many more milder cases and quite a few outbreaks that go unreported. This medical condition involves both the small intestine and the stomach, and patients suffering from it often experience cramping and pain in their abdomen, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Experts say that almost 50 percent of the outbreaks initially reported as occurring at U.S. nursing homes do not get officially confirmed. That is because, in many instances, thorough diagnostic testing is not carried out to make sure of the nature of the ailment nursing home residents are experiencing. Additionally, because both deaths and hospitalizations are relatively commonplace occurrences among elderly nursing home residents, many of whom have multiple health problems, care must be taken to sort out which hospitalizations and deaths are attributable to an outbreak and which would have normally occurred anyway.

A recent research study examined nursing homes certified by Medicare, located in a number of states, which had indicated a minimum of one outbreak of gastroenteritis cause by norovirus in the two year period going through the end of 2010. A total of 308 nursing homes were studied. Between them, they experienced a total of 407 outbreaks of the malady. Most of the outbreaks lasted approximately 13 days.

For many elderly residents of nursing homes, gastroenteritis can become extremely serious, especially for elderly residents who are frail and already in poor health. Patients in the studied nursing homes who were affected had to be hospitalized in 29 percent of the cases. A full 7 percent of the patients who contracted the infection died, despite the efforts of nursing home staff members and medical personnel at hospitals.

The importance of having an adequate nursing staff available at the homes was underscored by the fact that when the number of hours of nursing care available to residents was lower, the deaths of patients with gastroenteritis soared. There was a clearly increased rate of patient deaths in the nursing homes that, on a daily basis, had registered nurses available for fewer hours on average per patient during outbreaks. Homes with a higher number of registered nursing hours available for each patient during outbreaks saw no increase in patient deaths as compared with the normal occurrences.

The biggest risk of patient hospitalizations and deaths during such outbreaks is towards the beginning, with the rates of both gradually returning to normal as several weeks go by. What the study clearly shows is how essential it is that elderly nursing home residents who become ill receive adequate care and attention from trained and skilled professionals right from the beginning. Those nursing homes that adopt a penny pinching attitude by trying to cut down on nursing hours are putting their residents’ health and lives at risk.

The residents of our nation’s nursing homes are our elderly parents and grandparents. It is inexcusable that in all too many of them the elderly, after a lifetime of hard work, lay in their beds neglected when they are ill.