After Jackie Costanzo's mother broke her right hip in a fall, she needed more hands-on care in her assisted-living apartment near Sacramento, California. A social worker from her health plan suggested installing a video camera to help ensure those services were provided.
Without the camera, Costanzo wouldn't have a way to confirm that caregivers had followed through with serving meals, changing clothes, and fulfilling other care needs.
When Costanzo placed the device in May 2018, she informed the administrator and staff, and at first, there were no objections. The facility posted a sign on the apartment's front door, alerting anyone who entered of recording in progress.
But this past spring, a new management company came across the sign and threatened to issue a 30-day eviction notice to her 93-year-old mother, Louise Munch, who has dementia, for violating a policy that prohibits cameras in residents' rooms. With encouragement from California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, Costanzo researched the state's regulations but couldn't find anything to support or deny camera use. She refused to remove the recording device and prevailed.
"In essence, my mom was 'grandfathered in' because she moved in under a management company that did not specify that residents could not have cameras," says Costanzo, 73, a retired elementary schoolteacher who lives a three-hour drive away, in Silicon Valley, and visits one day every two weeks. Without the camera, Costanzo, who is her mother's only surviving child, wouldn't have a way to confirm that caregivers had followed through with serving meals, changing clothes, and fulfilling other care needs.
As technological innovations enable next of kin to remain apprised of the elderly's daily care in long-term care facilities, surveillance cameras bring legal and privacy issues to the forefront of a complex ethical debate. Families place them overtly or covertly—disguised in a makeshift clock radio, for instance—when they suspect or fear abuse or neglect, so they can maintain a watchful eye, perhaps deterring egregious behavior. But the cameras also capture intimate caregiving tasks, such as bathing and toileting, as well as dressing and undressing, which may undermine the dignity of residents.
So far, laws or guidelines in eight states—Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington—have granted families the rights to install cameras in a resident's room. In addition, about 15 other states have proposed legislation. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, have put forth regulatory compliance guidance, according to a column published in the July/August 2018 issue of Annals of Long-Term Care.
The increasing prevalence of this legislation has placed it on the radar of long-term care providers. It also suggests a trend to clarify responsible camera use in monitoring services while respecting privacy, says Victor Lane Rose, the column's editor and director of aging services at ECRI Institute, a health care nonprofit near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In most cases, a resident's family installs a camera or instigates a request in hopes of sparing their loved one from the harms of abuse, says James Wright, a family physician who serves as the ethics committee's vice chair of the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine in Columbia, Maryland. A camera also allows the family to check in on the resident from afar and remain on alert for a potential fall or agitated state, he says.
"It's rare that a facility will have 24-hour presence in a patient's room. You won't have a nurse in there all the time," says Wright, who is also medical director of two long-term care centers and one assisted-living facility around Richmond, Virginia. Particularly "with dementia, the family often wonders" if their loved one is safe.
While offering families peace of mind, he notes that video cameras can also help exonerate caregivers accused of abuse or theft. Hearing aids, which typically cost between $2,000 and $3,000 each, often go missing. By reviewing a video together, families and administrators may find clues to a device's disappearance. Conversely, Wright empathizes with the main counterargument against camera use, which is the belief that "invasion of privacy is also invasion of human dignity."
In respecting modesty, ethical questions abound over whether a camera should be turned off when a patient is in the midst of receiving personal care, such as dressing and undressing or using bedpans. Other ethical issues revolve around who may access the recordings, says Lori Smetanka, executive director of the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care in Washington, D.C.
Video cameras, she contends, are only one tool in shielding residents from abuse. They are "not substitutes for personal involvement," she says. "People need to be very vigilant visiting their family members, and facilities have a responsibility to ensure that residents are free of abuse."
Lack of accountability perpetuates abuse in long-term care settings and stems in large part from systemic underfunding.
Educating employees in abuse prevention becomes paramount, and families should ask about staff training before placing their loved one in a long-term care facility, Smetanka says. Prior to installing a camera, she recommends consulting an attorney who is familiar with this issue.
But thoughts of a camera often don't occur to families until an adverse event affects their loved one, says Toby Edelman, a senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy, a nonprofit organization with headquarters in Washington, D.C., and Connecticut.
"These cameras can show exactly what's going on," she explains, noting that prosecutors have used the recordings in litigation. "When residents have injuries of unknown origin" and they can't verbalize what happened to them, "the cameras may document that yes, the resident was actually hit by somebody."
With a resident's safety and security being "the most important consideration," the American Health Care Association in Washington, D.C., which represents long-term and post-acute care providers, supports allowing states, clinicians, and patients to decide about camera use on a local level, says David Gifford, senior vice president of quality and regulatory affairs and chief medical officer.
"We've seen some success with tools such as permissive legislation, where residents and their loved ones have the ability to determine whether a camera is right for them while working with the center openly and ensuring the confidentiality of other residents," says Gifford, who practiced as a geriatrician. "It is important to note, however, that surveillance cameras are still only one element of the quality matrix. We can never hope to truly improve quality care by catching bad actors after the fact."
Lack of accountability perpetuates abuse in long-term care settings and stems in large part from systemic underfunding. Low wages and morale are tied to high turnover, and cameras don't address this overarching problem, says Clara Berridge, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Washington in Seattle, who has co-authored articles on surveillance devices in elder care.
Employees often don't perceive a nursing assistant position as a long-term career trajectory and may not feel vested in the workplace. Training in the recognition and reporting of abuse becomes ineffective when workers quit shortly thereafter. Many must juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. Staffing shortages are endemic, leading to inadequate oversight of residents and voicing of abuse complaints, she says.
In Berridge's assessment, cameras may do more harm than good. Respondents to a survey she conducted of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in the United States found that recording devices tend to fuel workers' anxiety amid a culture that further demoralizes and dehumanizes the care they provide.
Consent becomes particularly thorny in shared rooms, which are more common than not in nursing homes. States that permit in-room cameras mandate that roommates or their legal representative be made aware. Even if the camera is directed away from their bed, it will still capture conversations as well as movements that enter its scope. "Surveillance isn't the best way to protect adults in need of support," Berridge says. "Public investment in quality care is."
"The camera is invaluable. But there's no law that says you can have it automatically, so that's wrong."
In the one-bedroom assisted-living apartment where Costanzo's mother lives alone, consent from another resident wasn't needed. Without a roommate, the camera is much less intrusive, although Costanzo wishes she had put one in the living room, not just the bedroom, for more security.
Her safety concerns escalated when she read about a Texas serial killer who smothered victims after gaining access to senior care facilities by "masquerading as a maintenance man." She points to such horrifying incidents, although exceedingly rare, as further justification for permitting cameras to help guard the vulnerable against abuse in long-term care settings. And she hopes to advocate for an applicable law in California.
"The camera is invaluable," says Costanzo, who pays for monthly Wi-Fi service so she can see and interact with her mother, who turns 94 in October, any time of day or night. "But there's no law that says you can have it automatically, so that's wrong."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”