Home Care Agencies Hiring Unqualified Caregivers, Study Finds

A new survey has shed light on the hiring practices of private home care agencies, and the news is not good.  In many cases, agencies are sending to the homes of vulnerable elderly patients workers with little or no experience or knowledge, no training, and inadequate background checks.

The study, which was carried out by researchers at Northwestern University, surveyed 180 private home care agencies in Illinois, California, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Indiana.  (The study did not include agencies that are certified by Medicare and are subject to federal regulations.)  The researchers posed as people calling the agency to obtain assistance for a family member, and they queried the agencies about their hiring and oversight of their caregivers.  The results may surprise families who assume that agencies follow strict hiring guidelines.

For instance, none of the agencies assessed their caregivers' ability to understand medical terminology, and only 15 percent provided their caregivers with any training prior to sending them out to clients.  Although slightly more than half (55.8 percent) of the agencies surveyed ran criminal background checks on their caregivers, none conducted checks outside of their own states, meaning that caregivers with criminal records in other states could still be employed.  According to a summary of the study in the Senior Journal, more than one agency told the researchers that they used screening tests that don't exist, such as the “National Scantron Test for Inappropriate Behavior” and the “Assessment of Christian Morality Test.”  

"People have a false sense of security when they hire a caregiver from an agency," the study’s lead author Lee Lindquist, M.D., said in a statement. "There are good agencies out there, but there are plenty of bad ones and consumers need to be aware that they may not be getting the safe, qualified caregiver they expect. It's dangerous for the elderly patient who may be cognitively impaired."

"Some of the paid caregivers are so unqualified it's scary and really puts the senior at risk" for elder abuse, Lindquist said.

Only a third drug-tested their workers.  "Considering that seniors often take pain medications, including narcotics, this is risky," Lindquist said. "Some of the paid caregivers may be illicit drug users and could easily use or steal the seniors' drugs to support their own habits."

Hiring a caregiver through an agency has a lot of advantages, especially when it comes to the logistics of paying the caregiver and complying with state and federal employment regulations.  But as the Northwestern University study shows, not all agencies are alike.  It's up to the customer to spend the time and effort to vet both the caregiver and the agency, asking questions about how the agency screens and assesses its caregivers. 

The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Read the study abstract and find links to the study itself.  

See questions you can ask a potential caregiver.