Background: Although psychoactive medications have substantial side effects in the elderly, these drugs are used frequently in nursing homes. Few interventions have succeeded in changing this situation, and little is known about the clinical effects of such interventions.
Methods: We studied six matched pairs of nursing homes; at one randomly selected nursing home in each pair, physicians, nurses, and aides participated in an educational program in geriatric psychopharmacology. At base line we determined the type and quantity of drugs received by all residents (n = 823), and a blinded observer performed standardized clinical assessments of the residents who were taking psychoactive medications. After the five-month program, drug use and patient status were reassessed.
Results: Scores on an index of psychoactive-drug use, measuring both the magnitude and the probable inappropriateness of medication use, declined significantly more in the nursing homes in which the program was carried out (experimental nursing homes) than in the control nursing homes (decrease, 27 percent vs. 8 percent; P = 0.02). The use of antipsychotic drugs was discontinued in more residents in the experimental nursing homes than in the control nursing homes (32 percent vs. 14 percent); the comparable figures for the discontinuation of long-acting benzodiazepines were 20 percent vs. 9 percent, and for antihistamine hypnotics, 45 percent vs. 21 percent. In the experimental nursing homes residents who were initially taking antipsychotic drugs showed less deterioration on several measures of cognitive function than similar residents in the control facilities, but they were more likely to report depression. Those who were initially taking benzodiazepines or antihistamine hypnotic agents reported less anxiety than controls but had more loss of memory. Most other measures of clinical status remained unchanged in both groups.
Conclusions: An educational program targeted to physicians, nurses, and aides can reduce the use of psychoactive drugs in nursing homes without adversely affecting the overall behavior and level of functioning of the residents.