Staff Education Cuts Psychotropic Drug Use in Long-term Care

Neil Osterweil

October 12, 2021

A simple caregiver education intervention reduced the use of psychotropic medications and associated drugs costs in long-term care facilities for the elderly in a new study.

The effect of the intervention was transient, possibly because of high staff turnover, according to the investigators in the new randomized, controlled trial.

The findings were presented by Ulla Aalto, MD, PhD, during a session at the European Geriatric Medicine Society annual congress, a hybrid live and online meeting.

There was a significant reduction in the use of psychotropic agents at 6 months in long-term care wards where the nursing staff had undergone a short training session on drug therapy for older patients, but there was no improvement in wards that were randomly assigned to serve as controls, Aalto, from Helsinki Hospital, reported during the session.

"Future research would be investigating how we could maintain the positive effects that were gained at 6 months but not seen any more at 1 year, and how to implement the good practice in nursing homes by this kind of staff training," she said.

Heavy Drug Use

Psychotropic medications are widely used in long-term care settings, but their indiscriminate use or use of the wrong drug for the wrong patient can be harmful. Inappropriate drug use in long-term care settings is also associated with higher costs, Aalto said.

To see whether a staff-training intervention could reduce drugs use and lower costs, the investigators conducted a randomized clinical trial in assisted living facilities in Helsinki in 2011, with a total of 227 patients 65 years and older.

Long-term care wards were randomly assigned to either an intervention for nursing staff consisting of two 4-hour sessions on good drug-therapy practice for older adults, or to serve as controls (10 wards in each group).

Drug use and costs were monitored at both 6 and 12 months after randomization. Psychotropic drugs included antipsychotics, antidepressants, anxiolytics, and hypnotics as classified by the World Health Organization. For the purposes of comparison, actual doses were counted and converted into relative proportions of defined daily doses.

The baseline characteristics of patients in each group were generally similar, with a mean age of around 83 years. In each study arm, nearly two-thirds of patients were on at least one psychotropic drug, and of this group, a third had been prescribed 2 or more psychotropic agents.

Nearly half of the patients were on at least one antipsychotic agent and/or antidepressant.

Short-term Benefit

As noted before, in the wards randomized to staff training, there was a significant reduction in use of all psychotropics from baseline at 6 months after randomization (P = .045), but there was no change among the control wards.

By 12 months, however, the differences between the intervention and control arms narrowed, and drug use in the intervention arm was no longer significantly lower over baseline.

Drugs costs significantly decreased in the intervention group at 6 months (P = .027) and were numerically but not statistically lower over baseline at 12 months.

In contrast, drug costs in the control arm were numerically (but not statistically) higher at both 6 and 12 months of follow-up.

Annual drug costs in the intervention group decreased by mean of 12.3 euros ($14.22) whereas costs in the control group increased by a mean of 20.6 euros ($23.81).

"This quite light and feasible intervention succeeded in reducing overall defined daily doses of psychotropics in the short term," Aalto said.

The waning of the intervention's effect on drug use and costs may be caused partly by the high employee turnover rate in long-term care facilities and to the dilution effect, she said, referring to a form of judgment bias in which people tend to devalue diagnostic information when other, nondiagnostic information is also available.

Randomized Design

In the question-and-answer session following her presentation, audience member Jesper Ryg, MD, PhD from Odense (Denmark) University Hospital and the University of Southern Denmark, also in Odense, commented: "It's a great study, doing a [randomized, controlled trial] on deprescribing, we need more of those."

"But what we know now is that a lot of studies show it is possible to deprescribe and get less drugs, but do we have any clinical data? Does this deprescribing lead to less falls, did it lead to lower mortality?" he asked.

Aalto replied that, in an earlier report from this study, investigators showed that harmful medication use was reduced and negative outcomes were reduced.

Another audience member asked why nursing staff were the target of the intervention, given that physicians do the actual drug prescribing.

Aalto responded: "It is the physician of course who prescribes, but in nursing homes and long-term care, nursing staff is there all the time, and the physicians are kind of consultants who just come there once in a while, so it's important that the nurses also know about these harmful medications and can bring them to the doctor when he or she arrives there."

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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