Data obtained through a Freedom of Information request shows nearly half of all seniors in long-term care in BC are being given antipsychotics like Risperdal, Zyprexa and Seroquel. That’s almost twice the average for the rest of Canada and amongst the highest rates found anywhere in the world. And even though Health Canada warns these drugs cause a doubling of death rates in the elderly, care workers admit they’re mainly being used as chemical restraints in the absence of adequate staffing and proper oversight.
“IT WILL RELAX YOU.” That’s the only explanation hospital staff gave when administering the antipsychotic medication to Carl. At least, that’s the only reason he recalls—soon he began experiencing “very strange cognitive feelings.”
“I’m a reasonably logical person,” he says, but suddenly he was in a “swimmy universe that didn’t make any sense.”
Carl (not his real name) became indifferent to his normal interests; inexplicably disengaged when friends visited: “like I was talking to them through a tunnel.” He felt as if he was in a “mind meld” with the Alzheimer’s patient next to him, losing his memory and connection to the world. Though he reportedly looked more docile, inwardly he was intensely disturbed. “I wasn’t relaxed at all.”
Carl didn’t understand what was happening and assumed the serious physical illness for which he was receiving treatment was the cause. Yet his experiences come straight out of the clinical drug literature.
A 2009 study of people’s subjective experiences with taking antipsychotics found many complained about “cognitive impairment” and “emotional flattening,” while few mentioned calmness or relaxation.
Antipsychotics are a class of tranquillizing drugs routinely used to help rein in the minds of people diagnosed with intense schizophrenia. In recent years, they’ve been used increasingly (albeit usually in smaller doses) to “calm” elderly people with dementia in hospitals and long-term care facilities.
Yet they’re hardly benign. Now widely described in medical literature as “chemical restraints,” common effects include foggy somnolence and disorientation, cognitive impairment, akathisia or “inner agitation,” extreme weight gain, diabetes, loss of muscle control, and muscle rigidity. Within a year of use, fully one-third of seniors will have Parkinson’s-like tremors from drug-induced brain damage. Within several months of use, death rates of seniors double—mainly from heart attacks.
Fortuitously for Carl, one long-time friend visiting him daily happened to be a nurse. She knew his illness could’ve precipitated some temporary psychological slippage, but nothing like what she was seeing.
“His personality was changing,” she says. “His cognitive level was changing in a downward spiral.”
But hospital staff barely knew Carl except in this irrational, helpless state, so they told her she should prepare for her 65-year-old, recently retired friend to spend the rest of his days in a nursing home.
After hearing of Carl’s story, I wondered: How many more like him are there?
Half of all residents are given antipsychotics
For two years, I tried to find out how many seniors in BC long-term care facilities were being given antipsychotics. Freedom of Information deadlines came and went. Not a single report, document, or email appeared.
It seemed unbelievable that this number wasn’t known. Since 2002, Health Canada has been repeatedly warning doctors against using antipsychotics in seniors with dementia because of the doubling of death rates. Nevertheless, antipsychotic use in Canadian nursing homes has continued rising inexorably, and alarm has been spreading through the medical literature and media. In 2006, BC spent $76 million on antipsychotics, making them our fifth most expensive class of drugs (for comparison, that’s double the arts and sports funding in our provincial budget). Yet no one in BC’s health ministry had the slightest interest?
Even my contact at the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner became frustrated with my persistence. “I can’t keep going back just telling them to search again,” he said. Repeatedly.
And then in March of this year, it magically appeared (see downloadable document below). A provincial-wide analysis using PharmaNet data had been completed months before I’d first asked to see one in 2009.
So now we know: Nearly half (47.3 percent) of seniors in long term care facilities in BC are taking antipsychotics. That’s close to double the US and Canadian average of 26 percent, and four times the rate of Hong Kong, which is at the low end of the spectrum.
“Do we have any answers…as to why BC has a higher use of antipsychotics in LTC [long-term care]?” wrote Darlene Therrien, a health ministry research and policy director who was wondering if a methodological error could be producing such huge BC numbers.
“I can’t see any issues in the data that would explain it,” emailed analyst Brett Wilmer. “I’m pretty sure it’s a health system phenomena…”
When I received these documents, I requested interviews. Ministry of Health spokesperson Ryan Jabs emailed back, “I can’t find a person from the program area who is comfortable speaking with media on this topic.”
So we’re left on our own to figure out what those BC health system “phenomena” are—and how dangerous they might be.