In newly published research analysing data on more than 3.8 million deceased nursing home residents, researchers at Brown University found the proportion of residents with dementia who benefited from Medicare hospice care nearly tripled – and the duration of care more than doubled – between 1999 and 2006.
“Because hospice care provides important medical benefits to patients with dementia, including more attentive assistance with feeding and medication, the increased use of the benefit is good news,” said Brown University gerontologist Susan Miller, the study's lead author. But the data need to be considered carefully by policymakers, hospice administrators, physicians and families in the context of efforts to control Medicare costs, she said.
"Families and caregivers don't always recognise it as a terminal illness, but people die of dementia," said Miller. "Ideally the higher the proportion of people with dementia who are in hospice care the better because many studies have shown a benefit. But the issue is the cost and the length of stay."
The study estimates the proportion of people who die in nursing homes with mild to moderately severe or an advanced degree of dementia, an important indicator of the prevalence of the condition in nursing homes. It puts the figure at 40.6 percent nationwide in 2006, although that varies widely by state.
Miller also found wide state-by-state variations in the length of stay in hospice care. That is a key finding because Medicare requires patients to have a terminal prognosis of six months or less before they can be enrolled for the hospice benefit. Because the prognosis of someone with dementia is hard to determine so precisely, some patients with dementia have remained in hospice care for much longer than six months, Miller said, and that concerns Medicare officials who must manage costs.
While the national average length of stay for nursing home patients with advanced dementia increased from 46 days in 1999 to 118 days in 2006 in eight states more than a quarter of such patients retained hospice care for more than six months. Oklahoma had the largest proportion of long-staying patients with 46.6 percent, followed by Alabama, New Mexico, Wyoming, South Carolina, Mississippi, Arizona, and North Dakota.
The variations revealed in the state-by-state data suggest that very long stays are not just a product of a general uncertainty about prognosis but also of very different practices in different parts of the country.
REHACARE.de; Source: Brown University