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Disenchantment among LTC leaders—and its toll on quality

October 1, 2007
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Every day and every night, 17,000 nursing home administrators (NHAs) around the nation bear the awesome responsibility of ensuring quality of life for 1.1 million of our elders. As leaders, they guide and mentor 650,000 CNAs, 300,000 RNs and LPNs, and 400,000 other staff in the art of caring for seniors, half of whom suffer dementia, one in ten having a diagnosed psychiatric condition, and three in four needing help with bathing, dressing, eating, moving from bed to chair, and using the toilet.

NHAs, along with their directors of nursing (DONs), researchers say, are the architects as well as the pillars of long-term care quality, so much so that you can pretty well size up a nursing home (NH) and determine its quality by the number of NHAs that it has lost in recent years and by the length of their tenure. In other words, the best NHs are invariably blessed with stable leadership, and in mediocre NHs you find NHAs at the revolving door entering and departing in rapid succession. Quality is a fragile seedling; it demands care and attention, is slow to come into bud, and blossoms best when tended consistently by the same hand, with no interruption.

Stable leadership is the sine qua non of NH quality because long-term care is quintessentially a people's enterprise. Here success is measured not by the high-tech conquest of disease and curing of illness, but by the high-touch caring that affirms the dignity of residents, even as a steady loss of independence threatens their self-esteem and self-respect. Efficient systems and skilled staff are necessary to deliver appropriate care, but they do not add up to the ambience required to foster quality of life. Creating such a supportive climate calls for a stable and caring leader who can add compassion to skill and can mentor, motivate, and transform the staff into devoted caregivers.

Compassion, whether inborn or cultivated, enables a leader not to see in people their social origin or status, but to connect with the person behind that social mask. Empathic NHAs recognize the high-value person in the low-status CNA role; they assume every person has the same universal human need for self-esteem and respect, the need to achieve and to create, to relate and to bond. Such NHAs, therefore, create a person-centered culture that affirms the dignity of residents and no less of staff, and fosters compassion, mutual caring, and bonds of friendship. Excellent service, competent care, and devoted caregiving are the fruit from the garden tended with care by a compassionate leader.

Both anecdote and research confirm that in the highly personalized world of the NH, systems to monitor quality do not always endure even when they are well designed and competently run. For an NH to perform consistently well and for its quality to always rank high, it has to have an unfailing, durable, supportive culture that is nurtured by a long-lasting, personalized NHA leader.

Thus, when NHAs walk out, they disturb the very underpinnings of quality and leave their facilities on the brink of a cascading crisis. High NHA turnover triggers a domino effect: DONs head toward the exit door, nursing personnel follow, care systems come apart, quality indicators turn negative, family and staff satisfaction slides, and state surveyors witness the quality meltdown and issue citations of increasing scope and severity. And therein lies the root of the chronic quality problems that afflict many a nursing home.

Departing Leaders and the Quality Crisis

More than 7,000 NHAs will walk out of their job this year, as they did last year and the year before. NHA turnover, which averages 40% plus, occurs unevenly; massive turnover in some facilities inflates that overall average, which is nevertheless too high for comfort. At the same time, the talent pool that has replenished their ranks is drying. The number of incoming candidates who take the NHA licensure exam has shrunk 40% in recent years.

These conditions explain why quality-related problems seem endemic, and why most quality improvement programs do not achieve lasting improvement. facilities with high NHA turnover simply lack a solid base on which to erect the edifice of quality. A simpleminded attempt to improve performance in those NHs is like using a Band-Aid to cure a malignancy.

And now a new study* casts an ominous light on this troubling situation. It reports that a malaise has spread among the nation's NHAs and afflicts them so deeply that three in four of them have seriously considered quitting. Half expect to be gone within five years.


Tellis-Nayak, V. The satisfied but disenchanted leaders in long-term care: The paradox of the nursing home administrator. Seniors Housing & Care Journal 2007;15:3-18. As the author of this study, and because of its important message, I requested and am permitted to make wide references to it.

The study analyzes the experience of 685 NHAs across the nation. It fleshes out its quantitative findings with ethnographic detail drawn from the NHAs' incisive comments on their profession: what attracted them to elder care, the rewards they get from making a difference, the source of their satisfaction, the nature of their frustration and its impact on their work and their morale.

The Fault Line at the Heart of Leadership

The analysis reveals a widening fault line that splits the role of NHAs and strains their commitment. On the one hand, NHAs affirm their satisfaction in their role: They often speak of an inner urge to serve and the rewards that come when they relate, bond, and make a difference. It is that challenge they responded to once and that sustains them now. They take pride in the close-knit family they have created inch by inch, with dedication and persistence.