New tool allows searches of nursing home inspection reports

Judith Graham

About Judith Graham

Judith Graham (@judith_graham), is a freelance journalist based in Denver and former topic leader on aging for AHCJ. She haswritten for the New York Times, Kaiser Health News, the Washington Post, the Journal of the American Medical Association, STAT News, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications.

For the first time, reporters anywhere in the country can search nursing home inspection reports online and see how often common problems pop up.

Thank you, ProPublica, for creating Nursing Home Inspect. It’ll make our jobs much easier, and be a valuable source of story ideas for many months to come.

Included at the moment are more than 20,000 reports from government inspections of 14,565 nursing homes, most since January 2011. The database will be updated monthly, ProPublica says, and that will make it even more helpful as time goes on.

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Deficiencies are noted when nursing homes are unclean or unsafe, or when staff harm elderly or disabled patients, or give medication inappropriately, or violate other standards of care. (These are just a few examples; there are many, many more.) Grades are awarded depending on the seriousness of the problem observed, with “A” being the least severe and “L” the most severe.

The inspection reports were posted online by the government in July – a first-of-its-kind public disclosure – but not in a format that made it possible to search them by keywords, cities, or nursing homes’ names. That’s where ProPublica’s new app comes in. Charlie Ornstein of ProPublica has written up helpful tips on using the database.

Reporters might want to begin by seeing which nursing homes in their city or state have been cited for deficiencies deemed most egregious, those with a letter grade of “K” or “L.” These are the facilities you might want to focus on if you were doing an investigation. (You’d surely want to know, however, if the problems identified persisted over time, and that kind of information isn’t yet available via ProPublica. To get it, you’ll have to ask government regulators to let you look at previous inspection reports.)

Next, consider doing a search that will show the extent of problems such as bed sores (also known as decubitus ulcers or pressure sores), sexual assaults, drug-resistant infections (MRSA is one type) or patients who wander away from facilities (the term for this is “elope”) in nursing homes in your area. To get as full a picture as possible, you may need to try several terms. Again, please refer to Ornstein’s tip sheet for cautionary advice and more information.

In addition, if any nursing homes in your area are on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ list of nursing homes in its Special Focus Facility Initiative, it might be informative to use Nursing Home Inspect to get details on the deficiencies found there. Nursing homes in the Special Focus Facility Initiative are homes that “(a) have had a history of serious quality issues and (b) are included in a special program to stimulate improvements in their quality of care.”

As Ornstein wisely notes, it’s important to keep in mind that government inspectors’ practices vary. Lots of nursing home deficiencies in your city or your state could be a sign of inspectors going aggressively after perceived problems – or it could be a sign of nursing homes performing especially abysmally – or it could be a sign of both.

Check with your area’s long-term care ombudsman for perspective and be sure to give any nursing home you write about a chance to look at the database and discuss its plan of correction in any piece you write.

For examples of top-notch investigative reports that have used similar kinds of information (once only available to reporters through Freedom of Information Act requests,) see this piece by ProPublica’s social media producer, Blair Hickman.)

Judith GrahamJudith Graham (@judith_graham), AHCJ’s topic leader on aging, is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover the many issues around our aging society.

If you have questions or suggestions for future resources on the topic, please send them to judith@healthjournalism.org.

Several reporters have already used Nursing Home Inspect and written stories based on their findings. Mostly, they seem to hail from smaller cities, where there are fewer homes and a search is easier to complete in just a few days. To look at their work, go to the home page for Nursing Home Inspect, look on the left hand side, and scroll down to the bottom.

2 thoughts on “New tool allows searches of nursing home inspection reports

  1. Anonymous

    Is this open to the public as well? Families who are scouting for nursing homes might as well make use of this tool. It would be easier to do a background check and compare their preferred nursing homes.

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