News 2 I-Team: Report on strip searches at nursing home prompts legislative action

An I-Team story caught the eye of a Charleston lawmaker who says something has to change.

Right now it's mandatory for people to undergo what's politely called body audits when they are admitted to a nursing home or rehabilitation facility.  Essentially, they are stripped searched, and in some cases the searches require checks of body cavities.  These initial and routine checks are a DHEC requirement.

Charleston Representative Wendell Gilliard introduced a bill to tweak the policy.

"I was very humiliated.  I just can't get over the nightmares."

After hip surgery, Shirley Choma checked into a local nursing home for rehabilitation,  and she says things went terribly wrong upon admission. Choma says the nurse told her to strip naked.

"I didn't go there to be violated," she said. "I went there for physical therapy."

When News 2 began investigating strip searches in nursing home facilities, we learned they are actually required for every patient and on an initial and routine basis.

"She told me she was looking for bruises," Choma said, explaining what nurses told her. "Why look at my private parts for bruises?"

When the I-Team pressed the Department of Health for information about the strip searches and what exactly they entail, a spokesman wrote via email:

"The scope of the admission physical examination is to be determined by the professional judgment of the attending physician or legally authorized healthcare provider.”

The DHEC policies require all facilities to monitor residents on a routine basis to decrease the risk of residents developing what’s commonly called bedsores.

According to police reports about Choma’s incident, nursing home employees told Summerville police cavity searches are part of their routine process.  They are checking for yeast infections.  Police closed the case and didn’t file any charges against the nurse or the facility, so News 2 opted not to name them as part of this story.

“The state regulation does not address cavity searches specifically,” a DHEC spokesman told the I-Team.

 

Giving back control

Representative Wendell Gilliard says patients should have more control over who's performing these checks.

“If the person feels uncomfortable, then they should have that choice of who they want in the room at that time,” he explained.

A key change his bill would make is requiring the exam be performed by the patient's own doctor or with the permission of another. It would also allow the check to be done five days before admission.

Gilliard's bill didn't make it out of a subcommittee, but he's spent this summer drumming up support and expects the bill to pass next session.

When asked why the bill didn’t pass last session, Gilliard told the I-Team it often takes a couple of sessions for the even the most common sense bills to pass.  He said he’s optimistic about the next session.

DHEC policy allows you to bypass the strip search if you’re under the care of a doctor before being admitted to a nursing home.

Via email a spokesman wrote:

“If the resident’s physical examination was conducted at another licensed health care facility, as defined by S.C. Code Section 44-7-130(10), within three months of admission to the nursing home, is countersigned by the nursing home physician, and meets the requirements of the nursing home regulation, the resident does not need to undergo an additional admission physical examination unless the nursing home has an indication the resident’s health status has changed significantly.”

Policies on strip and cavity searches vary between each facility. They are designed to protect patients, but they also can protect the facilities from potential lawsuits. So before you or a loved one is checked into a place, it's important to review admission paperwork carefully and understand their standard operating procedure.

Filing a complaint

In a statement to News 2,  DHEC told the I-Team they take every nursing home complaint seriously and investigate any alleged violation being committed by nursing homes.

Members of the public can use the DHEC online complaint form,  http://www.scdhec.gov/Apps/Health/HRComplaints/DefaultComplaintPublic.aspx, or call, 803-545-4370.  More information is available at: here: www.scdhec.gov/healthfacilitycomplaints.

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