In early August, a disturbing news story broke about the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, my old workplace. After an investigation by the State of Michigan’s Attorney General’s office, eleven former employees – all direct care workers – were charged with falsifying medical records. The caregivers charted that they had checked on members (the Veterans Home refers to the residents living there as members) while surveillance video shows that these checks were not done. In Michigan, falsifying medical records by a health care provider is a felony, punishable by up to four years in prison and a fine of up to $5000.
The investigation followed a scathing February 2016 report by the Michigan Auditor General. According to that report, the home failed to properly investigate allegations of abuse and neglect, took too long to fill prescriptions and operated with inadequate staffing levels. Both the Attorney General’s investigation and the audit came almost three years after the State privatized the entire direct care workforce at the home, thus replacing a dedicated, stable direct care workforce with contract workers from a demonstrably unreliable agency, J2S.
The eleven workers charged by Attorney General’s office were employed by J2S. That company was replaced by two other contract agencies last year after J2S repeatedly fell short of adequately staffing the facility.
As we have come to expect in media coverage of anything related to long term care, the local media treatment of this story displayed a superficial understanding of how a long term care facility operates and relied on sensational wording to make the story more compelling. In the process, the reporting presented a misleading picture of how caregivers go about their work. While reporters expressed outrage over the quality of care at the home, they seemed clueless regarding what it takes to make good care happen. I think it would be useful to correct this and offer a different perspective.
In one report following the announcement of the felony charges against the caregivers, a local TV reporter assured viewers that the Attorney General’s investigation “paints a pretty obvious picture of the situation” and concluded that bringing the charges does two things: “it holds people accountable for what they did,” and second, “I can guarantee you tonight at the home for veterans they’re going to be doing their member checks.”
The assumption in that last statement is that fear is a necessary and effective motivator in providing good care. This is a common fallacy among observers unfamiliar with the nature and practice of caregiving. You cannot get genuine compassion and caring from fear.
Yes, as our visibly self-satisfied watchdog reporter suggested, I’m guessing “those member checks” were indeed “being done tonight,” but as I will explain below, that form of diligence has little do with the actual quality of care at the home.
The media reports and statements from the Attorney General gave the impression that these hourly checks were at the heart of what caregivers do. They are not. In fact, the hourly checks are superimposed over normal care routines. In a typical institutional setting, each caregiver is assigned a group, usually ten or more residents depending on the shift, unit and facility, and is charged with completing a whole series tasks including assisting with the residents’ personal hygiene, bathing, grooming, dressing, toileting, bowel care, skin care, turning positioning, transferring, ambulating, transport, serving meals and feeding patients, offering fresh water and snacks, take vital signs, make beds, keep the residents’ room clean, answer calls lights and respond to requests, record intake and output information, observe and report changes in residents’ physical and mental condition. And of course, document these activities via flowsheets and other similar forms. The location sheet is one of these forms.
It’s important to understand that given the direct care staffing levels in a typical long term care facility, and this certainly includes the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans, assigned caregiver workloads are rarely possible to complete – not to the standards set forth by regulators, facility policy, and customary nursing practices, let alone family and public expectations. This means caregivers are constantly engaged in a form of care triage, made necessary because no one above them in the Long Term Care hierarchy, including policy makers and legislators, seem able to provide the resources necessary to do the job according to standards. Either they lack adequate awareness of the problem or are simply not willing to make the hard choices. By default, this is left to the direct care worker.
Given the inadequacies of the system, the best a caregiver can do is to arrange these various tasks in some order that makes the most sense for everyone in the group, taking into account the unit’s mealtimes and other facility routines. While a good caregiver tries to plan ahead, working with human beings means that unexpected needs routinely arise and no can anticipate everything. Each shift becomes a unique time puzzle that the caregiver must solve if the residents are going to receive the best care he or she can provide. But the puzzle is dynamic, the “pieces” change according to the immediate needs and expectations of residents, coworkers and management. The caregiver must continually adapt his or her time organization to ever changing circumstances and priorities. In essence, the caregiver spends the shift involved in perpetual problem solving with ethical implications.
At the Veteran’s Home, the check sheets are kept behind the nurses station while the majority of care is conducted in the members’ bedrooms and bathing areas. So, to properly document the checks consistently in a timely manner requires this absurdity: the already overwhelmed direct care worker must pause care and walk away from the members for whom she is providing care for the purpose of putting her initials on a sheet of paper that indicates she knows the location of the members she was just with. This may provide the facility with documentary evidence and meet an institutional need, but it does not necessarily address the needs of the members.
If we are truly concerned about the quality of care for our veterans, the real question is not whether or not the checks were properly documented, but what the caregivers were actually doing when they indicated they made the checks. Were they in the shower room with a member or making sure an unsteady member wasn’t tumbling off a commode or perhaps transporting a member to a therapy appointment? Were they in the middle of assisting a member with his meal or helping a coworker transfer a 350 pound man from his bed to his wheelchair? Were they responding to a member’s urgent request for help? Were they redirecting a confused member for the tenth time in the last five minutes? Were they assisting another caregiver who was trying to manage a combative member? Were they comforting a member who was experiencing some kind emotional turmoil? Were they on their way to nurses’ station to get the location checks clipboard when they noticed a call light? Were they with a sick member, maybe dealing with copious amounts of diarrhea or vomit? Were they cleaning up a spill that presented a fall hazard? Were they speaking with the family of a member regarding their loved ones’ care and status? Were they holding a dying member in their arms? Or perhaps they were engaged in a member’s post-mortem care.
I will leave it to the Attorney General and media reporters to decide to which of these activities caregivers ought to interrupt so that they might properly document the checks – and presumably stay out of prison.
Let’s be clear, if the workers were sitting behind the desk or off the unit or otherwise not engaged with the members when these checks were supposed to be made, then our sympathy and support for them evaporates. Not because they didn’t make the checks properly, but because they weren’t with the members and on task. Even in bad work environments, caregivers are ethically and morally obligated to the use the time and resources that they do have to do the best they can for the residents.
Of course, it could be argued that the hourly checks provide a more systematic way of accounting for the members’ location and condition. Regular checks ensure that no one gets forgotten. It seems obvious, right?
However, when you start to look at how caregivers actually gather information and keep tabs on the members in their group, the hourly checks take secondary importance. Caregivers are routinely provided with a “cheat sheet,” a one or two page list of all the members in their assigned group. The cheat sheet includes basic care information for each member. The caregivers carry these sheets with them and will refer to them throughout the shift. Even caregivers who are familiar with the members in their group will often use the cheat sheet as an aid to help organize their time and, of course, to help make sure no one is forgotten.
Given the real needs of the members, the fact that the checks are hourly is completely arbitrary. The reality is that some members don’t need to be checked that often and some leave the grounds for long periods – as is their right, it’s a home not a prison. Other members may need to be checked even more frequently depending on their particular physical and mental status. A lot can happen in 59 minutes and the hourly checks can no way guarantee the safety and well-being of all members. The best way to keep members safe and their immediate needs met is to have well informed, well supported, on-task caregivers. And by well-informed, we mean caregivers who are thoroughly familiar with the members – not just with their current medical status, but who they are as individuals, their daily needs, preferences, and habits.
By threatening caregivers with prison sentences and the like, we can make them jump through hoops and give the appearance that good care is being done, but we should wonder what is actually being missed while they’re putting on this show for us. As our watchdog reporter implied, fear will elicit a sure response. But with fear, the issue becomes not about the real quality of your work and how those in your care are experiencing it, it’s about how you think it’s being perceived by those who can punish you. Under siege, our actions are informed not by our sense of right and wrong nor even by common sense, but by the assessments and attitudes of those who are judging us. When those assessments and attitudes are based on faulty perceptions – which is often the case in long term care and certainly the case here – our priorities become skewed and we add yet another obstacle to good care.
Fear won’t take caregivers into the places where genuine compassion and caring will go. As a motivator, it’s a weak and insufficient substitute for the truly powerful motivations that result in the best care possible. On the other side of those closed doors and privacy curtains where caregivers engage members and actual care takes place, you really want people who are inspired by the better angels of their nature.
The quality of care in any long term care facility is directly tied to the facility’s investment in the caregivers who provide it. Paying direct care workers good wages with decent benefits not only helps attract and retain workers, but it also gives them the means to adequately provide for themselves and their families. Many caregivers have no choice but to work a lot of overtime or find second jobs just to make ends meet. The work itself is physically and emotionally demanding, and when you add the stress of double shifts and long hours, the result is a caregiver workforce perpetually on the edge burnout. You can’t get the best possible care on a consistent basis from workers who are physically exhausted and emotionally drained.
It should be no mystery why J2S had such difficulty staffing the place and why even now one of the current contract agencies continues to have problems. The shortage of caregivers has become a nation-wide crisis and annual turnover rates for direct care workers typically run between fifty and sixty percent. Prior to the State’s privatization of the direct care workers, the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans was immune to this crisis.
The cost of losing that stable direct care workforce cannot be overestimated. Caregivers who are unfamiliar with the members in their care groups cannot possibly provide the same level of care as those who have had long standing relationships. But we continue to routinely throw these workers into chaotic situations and expect them to perform a high level. Usually they feel fortunate just to get through the shift with no major disasters. Or investigations.
While a sense of duty and a good work ethic are necessary in providing adequate care, there is no substitute for the personal relationship that develops between the caregiver and resident. This bond is the single most powerful motivator in providing excellent care. In environments where these relationships are encouraged to develop and flourish, workers become more caregivers, they become advocates.
If the caregiver has a moral obligation to do the best for his or her residents despite difficult circumstances, then those above us in the hierarchy and those on the outside who seek to influence the activity of caregivers have an equally compelling moral obligation to understand the consequences of that influence. This requires a basic awareness of the real challenges faced by caregivers and insight into what really motivates them. From what I’ve seen, both the Attorney General and the local watchdog reporters have failed to demonstrate that awareness and insight.