Communicating safety precautions is key to restoring census at skilled nursing facilities — and rebuilding trust among residents and families — according to a presentation hosted Tuesday by the Advisory Board.

In a presentation covering post-acute care and public perception, Monica Westhead, managing director of nursing and post-acute care research at the research organization, said family, as well as potential patients, don’t consider safety a given, after seeing SNF performance during COVID-19 framed in a negative light for more than a year.

The best way to bring residents back is to show them what safety changes were made short-term and what changes are planned long-term to keep viral outbreaks in check, she said. Being open about current operations helps ease public perception too — there’s no room to speculate if the doors are open, even if figuratively, to a facility’s future populace.

“People’s perception of what post-acute care is may not actually match what it actually is in real life, and it is up to the post-acute providers both to understand how consumers currently perceive post-acute providers and to try to change that,” said Westhead.

Nearly 78% of seniors surveyed by Westhead and staff said they’d be more inclined to receive care at a particular facility if private rooms were guaranteed; 77% said air filtration devices would sway their decision-making and nearly 76% said vaccine mandates are essential when choosing a care center now.

Advisory Board’s Post Acute Care Collaborative this spring interviewed more than 1,000 seniors aged 65 and older for the survey.

That last statistic might be hard for some operators to add to marketing campaigns, Westhead explained, since 35% of nursing home and assisted care facility frontline staff told researchers that they are undecided or don’t plan on getting vaccinated for COVID-19. For providers in home health, the portion of workers who are undecided or opting out of vaccination was even higher, at 43%.

By comparison, hospital post-acute staff refusing a COVID-19 vaccine or who are undecided was reportedly 22%.

“Vaccinated staff is certainly something that consumers are looking for, but it’s also true that staff working in the long-term care environment or in the home have a much higher rate of hesitation,” said Westhead. “Obviously, CMS has just begun to require reporting of vaccination rates, they have published a list of the post-acute SNF vaccination rates online in addition to a list of providers that have hit the 75% threshold that they have recommended.”

Researchers were surprised to find that consumers associated nursing homes with overall positive experiences — 370 of the 1,000 surveyees who actually received post-acute services at an SNF had primarily positive things to say about their experiences.

“We asked them what words they would use to describe the SNF that they stayed at and we provided a long list of words, some of which were positive, some of which were negative, and the most commonly used words were all positive, and least commonly used words were all negative,” added Westhead. “Perception is not as bad as I think the industry would like to think it is.”

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