Short stays may be driving up Americans' nursing home needs, study finds

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Recent increases in the percentage of short nursing home stays may lead to a higher amount of Americans requiring skilled nursing care than previously estimated, a new study shows.

The research, published Monday by the RAND Corporation in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that 56% of American adults between ages 57 and 61 will spend at least one night in a nursing home during their lifetimes. That's compared to 35% reported by previous studies, as well as an estimate from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The estimated increase may reflect a recent shift toward shorter nursing home stays, as hospitals seek to reign in their costs by discharging patients to nursing facilities sooner, researchers noted. The study found that short nursing homes stays of 21 nights or fewer increased from 28% in 1998 to almost 34% in 2010.

Long-term care providers should take those results to heart and begin thinking about how their facilities are equipped to handle more residents in the coming years, Michael Hurd, Ph.D., lead author of the RAND study, told McKnight's. Hurd viewed the study's results as affecting three primary groups: American households, the government and long-term care providers themselves.

“It's certainly going to be an issue,” Hurd said. “I think the industry needs to start thinking about that, and planning for that, and working with the government on how best to do that.”

Critical issues for providers to consider are the number of beds within their facility, technology improvements that may help them care for greater numbers of people, and workforce-related topics, Hurd said.

The Medicaid and Medicare programs also will have to be considered as more Americans require nursing home care.

“Medicaid needs to be protected and thought through better, about how we as a society can provide long-term care for people who are unable to finance it for themselves,” Hurd said.

The study found that 32% of Americans will require care and have to pay for the services out of their own pocket. Twenty-three percent will pay no out-of-pocket expenses and have their care covered by private or, in most cases, public insurance. The study also showed that the percentage of seniors with long-term care insurance is low, at 10.5%.

The study's finding of increased need is unlikely to budge in coming years, due to a growing number of retiring baby boomers and shrinking family sizes, Hurd noted.