Want to prevent lawsuits? Talk to us!
I've heard a lot of talk lately about suing nursing homes – not only from family members distraught over an elderly loved one's injury or death in an SNF, but also from the growing chorus of lawyers trolling the local airwaves for potential plaintiffs. “If your loved one shows signs of nursing-home neglect or abuse,” they cry, “you need to consult an attorney right away!”
Certainly, such lawsuits are occasionally warranted. But I wonder how many are instigated by families who've been convinced that they have a moral obligation to sue, if only “to make sure it doesn't ever happen again.”
I have almost 25 years' experience with a perfectly lovely Wisconsin nursing home, first as the daughter of a longtime resident and, after her death in 2000, as a regular volunteer there. And I'm convinced that a fair share of lawsuits could be avoided if individual facilities, and the industry at large, would do a better job of communicating with key audiences -- especially residents' families.
May I make a few suggestions?
Position yourselves as our partners
From what I've witnessed, we all share the same objective: ensuring the elderly of a comfortable, safe, loving and stimulating environment for the rest of their lives.
But don't count on us family members to remember that a month or two after checking our loved ones into your facility. Prove it to us repeatedly.
For example, does your activities staff go to great lengths to keep residents' creative juices flowing? Do the folks in dietary bend over backwards to tempt even fussy eaters? Has your PT team had unusual success in getting the wheelchair-bound back on their feet?
In short, continually identify the extraordinary in your facility, and make sure we hear about it.
Tell us what you can do
It never hurts to spell out the advantages you offer residents.
You might begin by reviewing what you tell government inspectors about your capabilities. Could you translate some of it into plain and compelling English to communicate what it means to our loved ones?
For example, how about the number of clinical staff hours each resident receives per day? Do you boast sparkling statistics on minimizing falls or choking events? Do you excel at fast diagnosis and treatment of UTIs? What steps are you taking to further improve the quality of your services?
This is the kind of detail that reminds us how very much you care about everyone in your facility.
Tell us what you can't do
Believe it or not, some of us assume that you'll keep our loved ones under 24-hour-a-day observation. Then, when something bad happens beyond our staff's field of view, we start muttering about neglect, if not outright abuse.
What's more, we're likely to blame you for things that are totally out of your control – even when the government has tied your hands. In Wisconsin, for instance, bed rails cannot be provided until a resident has actually fallen out of bed and hurt himself. The reason: it smacks of restraint.
Such restrictions mean that occasional falls are almost inevitable in SNFs. Please discuss such realities of nursing-home life with us, up front and over time. Don't let our expectations get out of whack. Instead, enlist our help in making sure our loved ones understand their role in staying safe and sound.
Let's talk money
Many people feel like they're being ripped off by nursing homes – dangerous thinking when the possibility of a lawsuit crosses our minds.
Why not expose us to the financial nitty gritty before that happens? Show us what private, round-the-clock care would cost in our area. Tell us how much you invest in training your staff and keeping the place spotless. Detail how much you plow back into infrastructure each year. Describe the cost of keeping up with ever-evolving regulations.
Even better: If possible and when appropriate, fill us in on how much of a private-pay resident's “rent” goes to subsidize those who can't pay their own way. Most of us are compassionate. And when we realize that our loved ones will continue to receive care even if they run out of money? You'll see our antagonism melt into gratitude and sympathy.
Tell us how to be heard.
If our loved ones are with you for any length of time, issues will undoubtedly arise. So tell us what to do if we have concerns or complaints. Whose job is it to advocate and intervene for us, and how can we take full advantage of this resource?
Package your messages persuasively
Not everyone will be interested in all this detail. But the more you make available, the happier your residents' families are likely to be – especially if you carefully craft your messaging and delivery vehicles.
Whichever vehicles you ultimately settle on – brochures or emails, newsletters or videos, social media 0r media relations – effective communications start with meticulous planning and execution. To help ensure the quality and timeliness of your program, do not hesitate to bring in ad agency or freelance professionals up front.
If you can't afford to do this unilaterally, consider joining hands with other facilities. Or petition your local association to create materials that you and your colleagues can share.
Do it for all our sakes
The immediate goal of such a communications effort may be to stave off litigation. But don't lose sight of the big picture: If the epidemic of nursing-home lawsuits continues unchecked, will there be any remotely affordable, high-quality nursing homes left 20 or 30 years from now?
I for one hope that the industry will only grow stronger in the years to come. And I'm certain that, launched today, effective communications could help make that a reality for us all.
Kitty Foth-Regner is a retired marketing communications copywriter and the author of Heaven Without Her (Thomas Nelson, 2008). She is currently doing a final edit on The Song of Sadie Sparrow, a novel about three women whose lives become intertwined in a fictional nursing home. Contact her at www.EverlastingPlace.com.