Implementation of a Communication Training Program Is Associated with Reduction of Antipsychotic Medication Use in Nursing Homes

August 2017, Vol. 24, No. 8


Tjia J, Hunnicutt JN, Herndon L, et al. Association of a communication training program with use of antipsychotics in nursing homes. JAMA Intern Med 2017;177:846–53.


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Study Overview

Objective. To evaluate the effectiveness of OASIS, a large-scale, statewide communication training program, on the reduction of antipsychotic use in nursing homes (NHs).

Design. Quasi-experimental longitudinal study with external controls.

Setting and participants. The participants were residents living in NHs between 1 March 2011 and 31 August 2013. The intervention group consisted of NHs in Massachusetts that were enrolled in the OASIS intervention and the control group consisted of NHs in Massachusetts and New York. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Minimum Data Set (MDS) 3.0 data was analyzed to determine medication use and behavior of residents of NHs. Residents of these NHs were excluded if they had a US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved indication for antipsychotic use (eg, schizophrenia); were short-term residents (length of stay < 90 days); or had missing data on psychopharmacological medication use or behavior.

Intervention. The OASIS is an educational program that targeted both direct care and non-direct care staff in NHs to assist them in meeting the needs and challenges of caring for long-term care residents. Utilizing a train-the-trainer model, OASIS program coordinators and champions from each intervention NH participated in an 8-hour in-person training session that focused on enhancing communication skills between NH staff and residents with cognitive impairment. These trainers subsequently instructed the OASIS program to staff at their respective NHs using a team-based care approach. Addi-tional support of the OASIS educational program, such as telephone support, 12 webinars, 2 regional seminars, and 2 booster sessions, were provided to participating NHs.

Main outcome measures. The main outcome measure was facility-level prevalence of antipsychotic use in long-term NH residents captured by MDS in the 7 days preceding the MDS assessment. The secondary outcome measures were facility-level quarterly prevalence of psychotropic medications that may have been substituted for antipsychotic medications (ie, anxiolytics, antidepressants, and hypnotics) and behavioral disturbances (ie, physically abusive behavior, verbally abusive behavior, and rejecting care). All secondary outcomes were dichotomized in the 7 days preceding the MDS assessment and aggregated at the facility level for each quarter.

The analysis utilized an interrupted time series model of facility-level prevalence of antipsychotic medication use, other psychotropic medication use, and behavioral disturbances to evaluate the OASIS intervention’s effectiveness in participating facilities compared with control NHs. This methodology allowed the assessment of changes in the trend of antipsychotic use after the OASIS intervention controlling for historical trends. Data from the 18-month pre-intervention (baseline) period was compared with that of a 3-month training phase, a 6-month implementation phase, and a 3-month maintenance phase.

Main results. 93 NHs received OASIS intervention (27 with high prevalence of antipsychotic use) while 831 NHs did not (non-intervention control). The intervention NHs had a higher prevalence of antipsychotic use before OASIS training (baseline period) than the control NHs (34.1% vs. 22.7%, P < 0.001). The intervention NHs compared to controls were smaller in size (122 beds [interquartile range {IQR}, 88–152 beds] vs. 140 beds; [IQR, 104–200 beds]; P < 0.001), more likely to be for profit (77.4% vs. 62.0%, P = 0.009), had corporate ownership (93.5% vs. 74.6%, P < 0.001), and provided resident-only councils (78.5% vs. 52.9%, P < 0.001). The intervention NHs had higher registered nurse (RN) staffing hours per resident (0.8 vs. 0.7; P = 0.01) but lower certified nursing assistant (CNA) hours per resident (2.3 vs. 2.4; P = 0.04) than control NHs. There was no difference in licensed practical nurse hours per resident between groups.

All 93 intervention NHs completed the 8-hour in-person training session and attended an average of 6.5 (range, 0–12) subsequent support webinars. Thirteen NHs (14.0%) attended no regional seminars, 32 (34.4%) attended one, and 48 (51.6%) attended both. Four NHs (4.3%) attended one booster session, and 13 (14.0%) attended both. The NH staff most often trained in the OASIS training program were the directors of nursing, RNs, CNAs, and activities personnel. Support staff including housekeeping and dietary were trained in about half of the reporting intervention NHs, while physicians and nurse practitioners participated infrequently. Concurrent training programs in dementia care (Hand-in-Hand, Alzheimer Association training, MassPRO dementia care training) were implemented in 67.2% of intervention NHs.

In the intervention NHs, the prevalence of antipsych-otic prescribing decreased from 34.1% at baseline to 26.5% at the study end (7.6% absolute reduction, 22.3% relative reduction). In comparison, the prevalence of antipsychotic prescribing in control NHs decreased from 22.7% to 18.8% over the same period (3.9% absolute reduction, 17.2% relative reduction). During the OASIS implementation phase, the intervention NHs had a reduc-tion in prevalence of antipsychotic use (–1.20% [95% confidence interval {CI}, –1.85% to –0.09% per quarter]) greater than that of the control NHs (–0.23% [95% CI, –0.47% to 0.01% per quarter]), resulting in a net OASIS influence of –0.97% (95% CI, –1.85% to –0.09% per quarter; P = 0.03). The antipsychotic use reduction observed in the implementation phase was not sustained in the maintenance phase (difference of 0.93%; 95% CI, –0.66% to 2.54%; P = 0.48). No increases in other psychotropic medication use (anxiolytics, antidepressants, hypnotics) or behavioral disturbances (physically abusive behavior, verbally abusive behavior, and rejecting care) were observed during the OASIS training and implementation phases.

Conclusion. The OASIS communication training program reduced the prevalence of antipsychotic use in NHs during its implementation phase, but its effect was not sustained in the subsequent maintenance phase. The use of other psychotropic medications and behavior disturbances did not increase during the implementation of OASIS program. The findings from this study provided further support for utilizing nonpharmacologic programs to treat behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia in older adults who reside in NHs.



The use of both conventional and atypical antipsychotic medications is associated with a dose-related, approximately 2-fold increased risk of sudden cardiac death in older adults [1,2]. In 2006, the FDA issued a public health advisory stating that both conventional and atypical anti-psychotic medications are associated with an increased risk of mortality in elderly patients treated for dementia-related psychosis. Despite this black box warning and growing recognition that antipsychotic medications are not indicated for the treatment of dementia-related psychosis, the off-label use of antipsychotic medications to treat behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia in older adults remains a common practice in nursing homes [3]. Thus, there is an urgent need to assess and develop effective interventions that reduce the practice of antipsychotic medication prescribing in long-term care. To that effect, the study reported by Tjia et al appropriately investigated the impact of the OASIS communication training program, a nonpharmacologic intervention, on the reduction of antipsychotic use in NHs.

This study was well designed and had a number of strengths. It utilized an interrupted time series model, one of the strongest quasi-experimental approaches due to its robustness to threats of internal validity, for evaluating longitudinal effects of an intervention intended to improve the quality of medication use. Moreover, this study included a large sample size and comparison facilities from the same geographical areas (NHs in Massachusetts and New York State) that served as external controls. Several potential weaknesses of the study were identified. Because facility-level aggregate data from NHs were used for analysis, individual level (long-term care resident) characteristics were not accounted for in the analysis. In addition, while the post-OASIS intervention questionnaire response rate was 65.6% (61 of 93 intervention NHs), a higher response rate would provide better characterization of NH staff that participated in OASIS program training, program completion rate, and a more complete representation of competing dementia care training programs concurrently implemented in these NHs.

Several studies, most utilizing various provider education methods, had explored whether these interventions could curb antipsychotic use in NHs with limited success. The largest successful intervention was reported by Meador et al [4], where a focused provider education program facilitated a relative reduction in antipsychotic medication use of 23% compared to control NHs. However, the implementation of this specific program was time- and resource-intensive, requiring geropsychiatry evaluation to all physicians (45 to 60 min), nurse-educator in-service programs for NH staff (5 to 6 one-hr sessions), management specialist consultation to NH administrators (4 hr), and evening meeting for the families of NH residents. The current study by Tjia et al, the largest study to date conducted in the context of competing dementia care training programs and increased awareness of the danger of antipsychotic use in the elderly, similarly showed a meaningful reduction in antipsychotic medication use in NHs that received the OASIS communication training program. The OASIS program appears to be less resource-intensive than the provider education program modeled by Meador et al, and its train-the-trainer model is likely more adaptable to meet the limitations (eg, low staffing and staff turnover) inherent in NHs. The beneficial effect of the OASIS program on reduction of antipsychotic medication prescribing was observed despite low participation by prescribers (11.5% of physicians and 11.5% of nurse practitioners). Although it is unclear why this was observed, this finding is intriguing in that a communication training program that reframes challenging behavior of NH residents with cognitive impairment as (1) communication of unmet needs, (2) train staff to anticipate resident needs, and (3) integrate resident strengths into daily care plans can alter provider prescription behavior. The implication of this is that provider practice in managing behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia can be improved by optimizing communication training in NH staff. Taken together, this study adds to evidence in favor of utilizing nonpharmacologic interventions to reduce antipsychotic use in long-term care.


Applications for Clinical Practice

OASIS, a communication training program for NH staff, reduces antipsychotic medication use in NHs during its implementation phase. Future studies need to investigate pragmatic methods to sustain the beneficial effect of OASIS after its implementation phase.


—Fred Ko, MD, MS, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY



1. Ray WA, Chung CP, Murray KT, et al. Atypical antipsychotic drugs and the risk of sudden cardiac death. N Engl J Med 2009;360:225–35.

2. Wang PS, Schneeweiss S, Avorn J, et al. Risk of death in elderly users of conventional vs. atypical antipsychotic medications. N Engl J Med 2005;353:2335–41.

3. Chen Y, Briesacher BA, Field TS, et al. Unexplained variation across US nursing homes in antipsychotic prescribing rates. Arch Intern Med 2010;170:89–95.

4. Meador KG, Taylor JA, Thapa PB, et al. Predictors of anti-
psychotic withdrawal or dose reduction in a randomized controlled trial of provider education. J Am Geriatr Soc 1997;45:207–10.

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