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Gear provides lift to patients, nursing staff

Nurses and nursing assistants no longer bend, strain, and struggle to lift residents from beds to wheelchairs to restrooms. In fact, employees who violate the Wyandot County Nursing Home's strict “no-lift policy” can be disciplined if they do not use the state-of-the-art lift equipment when transferring or repositioning patients.

The policy has had two dramatic effects: employee injuries and employee turnover are down. Some say the residents' dignity has been restored as well.

Joe Jolliff, longtime administrator of the 100-bed nursing home, admits it was a single worker's compensation claim in 1995 that cost the nursing home $240,000 that forced him to investigate ways to reduce injuries.

But what he discovered in the process went far beyond dollars and cents.

While lifting and the injuries that resulted had always been an accepted part of the profession, Mr. Jolliff eventually came to believe what a representative of the Ohio Bureau of Worker's Compensation had suggested: The nursing home values its employees as much as its residents.

“Here we are destroying 20, 30-year-olds, sometimes teenagers taking care of 85 and 90-year-olds,” Mr. Jolliff said. “People get upset if anything happens to residents. No one cares if an employee gets hurt.”

In an age and a nation where mechanization long ago replaced most back-breaking industrial work, Mr. Jolliff said the health care industry continues to live in the dark ages. Nurses and nursing assistants are trained to do traditional two-man lifts and taught that's the acceptable way to lift patients regardless of their weight.

“That's a lie,” Mr. Jolliff said. “You and I can't lift a 200-pound person; why should we expect nurses and nursing assistants to? We're trying to use them like machines, and they're not a machine.”

While the kind of lift equipment his nursing home has purchased is expensive, Mr. Jolliff insists it's not the cost that's preventing nursing homes from addressing the problem. He blames “a mindset” drilled into health-care workers in nursing school and perpetrated by government agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Bureau of Worker's Compensation.

Ask any nurse, and he or she likely will be skeptical that patients can be moved so effortlessly.

“I think we all thought he was crazy,” said Doreen Flowers, director of nursing. “It took us a long time [to adjust to the idea], but I think that was best. If they'd have forced them, people would've quit.”

Mrs. Flowers said she knows of no employees who have left the nursing home because of the no-lift policy. Some, like 25-year-old Crystal Taylor, said they applied for a job here because they'd heard about it.

“I worked for six years at another nursing home and my back killed me,” Ms. Taylor said. “I was ready to get out of the profession because my back hurt so much.”

For several years, Mr. Jolliff waged a one-man battle to get his employees to let mechanical lifts do the work their muscles and joints once did. Most wouldn't touch the equipment that sales representatives brought in for the home to try.

In 1996, a voluntary employee committee began to examine the lifting issue and make recommendations on what equipment would work best. Much of it was in place by early 1997, though most workers didn't become believers until April, 2000, when the home bought 58 electric beds that enabled employees to care for residents without bending and straining.

“In my 20 years as an administrator, it's the only thing I've ever done that everyone has said thank you for and no one has complained about,” Mr. Jolliff said. “That tells me how important it is.”

To date, the home has spent $116,000 on the new equipment, including a $40,000 grant from the Bureau of Worker's Compensation to help buy the electric beds. Although Mr. Jolliff estimates it would cost more than $500,000 to install ceiling lifts in every room - they're in 18 rooms now - he doesn't see that as an obstacle.

“When you have one worker's comp claim that's $240,000, I don't think that would be a hard sell,” he said.

Numerous private and county-run nursing homes have sent representatives to see what has been done at the Wyandot County home, and everyone from the Ohio Department of Health to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is taking notice.

Wood County commissioners and Administrator Andrew Kalmar visited the nursing home in April. Mr. Kalmar said they were impressed and are looking into whether such equipment could be installed at the Wood County Nursing Home.

“Not only are you helping the resident of the nursing home to be lifted in a dignified manner, you're helping your staff to be able to lift them without injuring themselves, which has long-term benefits for your employees,” Mr. Kalmar said.

Wyandot County Nursing Home's no-lift policy took effect Oct. 31, 2000. Mr. Jolliff said he knows of just one other home in Ohio with a no-lift policy, Bethany Nursing Home in Canton.

Some of the lifts were built in Ohio; others came from Sweden, where lifting equipment in nursing homes has been commonplace for nearly 20 years.

Portable sit-to-stand lifts and permanent ceiling lifts carefully lift and move patients in secure, well-supported slings. Employees no longer have to hoist them with their hands, which could damage skin, and residents can use the bathroom with greater privacy because they are secured in the apparatus.

Debby Walter, who has been an aide in nursing homes for more than 23 years, said that despite chronic back pain, she refused to try the mechanical lifts until one night when she had to move a patient by herself. She couldn't believe how simple it was.

“At first I thought it would be a hassle, and it wasn't. Now there is no other way,” she said.

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