Clinical Review

Barriers and Facilitators to Adopting Nursing Home Culture Change



From RTI International, Waltham, MA, and Brown University School of Public Health, Providence, RI.


  • Objective: To review the nursing home culture change literature and identify common barriers to and facilitators of nursing home culture change adoption. Nursing home culture change aims to make nursing homes less institutional by providing more resident-centered care, making environments more homelike, and empowering direct care staff.
  • Methods: We reviewed the research literature on nursing home culture change, especially as related to implementation and outcomes.
  • Results: Adoption of nursing home culture change practices has been steadily increasing in the past decade, but some practices are more likely to be adopted than others. A commonly reported barrier to culture change adoption is staff resistance to change. Studies suggest that this resistance can be overcome by changes to management practices, including good communication, providing training and education, and leadership support.
  • Conclusion: The numerous benefits of nursing home culture change are apparent in the literature. Barriers to its adoption may be overcome by making improvements to nursing home management practices.

Key words: nursing homes; culture change; resident-centered care.

Nursing home culture change is a philosophy and combination of diverse practices aimed at making nursing homes less institutional and more resident-centered [1]. Nursing homes have been depicted as dehumanizing “total institutions” [2–4] in which the quality of residents’ lives and the quality of care are generally poor, daily life is medically regimented, only residents’ basic physical needs receive attention [5–8], and direct care workers are subject to poor working conditions for the lowest possible pay [9,10]. Since the 1980s, transforming the culture of nursing homes to be more humanizing, resident-centered, empowering, and homelike has been a primary mission of many stakeholder groups, including nursing home residents and care workers and their advocates [11].

Comprehensive culture change requires transformation of the nursing home environment from that of an institution to that of a home, implementation of more resident-centered care practices, empowerment of direct care staff, and flattening of the traditional organizational hierarchy so that residents and direct-care workers are actively involved in planning and implementing changes that empower them [12,13]. Culture change requires both technical changes, which are relatively straightforward efforts to address issues within a system while fundamentally keeping the system intact, and adaptive changes, which are more complex and entail reforming fundamental values that underlie the system and demand changes to the system itself [14,15].

Over time, nursing home culture change has gained widespread mainstream support. In 2009, the federal government issued new interpretive guidelines for use by nursing home inspectors that call for nursing homes to have more homelike environments and to support more resident-centered care [16]. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also required state quality improvement organizations to work with nursing homes on culture change efforts [1]. Some states effectively incentivize culture change by tying nursing home reimbursement rates and pay-for-performance policies to the implementation of culture change practices [17]. In addition to federal and state regulations, some nursing home corporations encourage or require facility administrators to implement culture change practices [18]. Overall, nursing homes are pushed to implement culture change practices on many fronts. The promise of beneficial outcomes of culture change also motivates implementation of some culture change practices [19].

In this article, we discuss the key elements of culture change, review the research examining the association between culture change and outcomes, identify key barriers to culture change, and offer suggestions from the literature for overcoming resistance to culture change.

Elements of Culture Change

Changing the Physical Environment

Changing the physical environment of nursing homes to be less institutional and more homelike is a core component of culture change [1]. These include both exterior and interior changes. Exterior changes can include adding walkways, patios, and gardens; interior changes include replacing nurses’ stations with desks, creating resident common areas, introducing the use of linens in dining areas, personalizing mailboxes outside of resident rooms, and adding small kitchens on units [20]. Other ideas for making environments more homelike include providing residents with the choice of colors for painting rooms and the choice of corridor/unit names and replacing public announcement systems with staff pagers [20].

Although changes to the physical environment may be considered cost-prohibitive, many of these changes entail minor and inexpensive enhancements that can help make environments more intimate and reminiscent of home than are traditional nursing homes [21,22]. Additionally, some environmental changes, such as adding raised gardens and walkways, can be designed not only to make the environment more homelike but also to help residents to engage in meaningful activities and connect to former roles, such as those of a homemaker, gardener, or farmer [21–23].

Providing Resident-Centered Care

Making care resident-centered entails enhancing resident choice and decision making and focusing the delivery of services on residents’ needs and preferences. According to Banaszak-Holl and colleagues [24], resident-centered approaches often emphasize the importance of shifting institutional norms and values and drawing employees’ attention to the needs of residents. This cultural shift in values and norms may be signaled by the implementation of practices that strengthen residents’ autonomy regarding everyday decisions. For example, as part of a resident-centered approach, residents would be offered choices and encouraged to make their own decisions about things personally affecting them, such as what to wear or when to go to bed, eating schedules, and menus [1,17,25].

Empowering Care Aides

Nursing home staff empowerment, particularly the empowerment of nursing assistants and other “hands-on” care aides—who are the predominant workforce in nursing homes and provide the vast bulk of care [26]—is a core component of culture change [1]. Such staff empowerment generally entails enhanced participation in decision making and increased autonomy. Staff empowerment practices that were examined in a national survey of nursing home directors [17] included:

  • Staff work together to cover shifts when someone cannot come to work
  • Staff cross-trained to perform tasks outside of their assigned job duties
  • Staff involved in planning social events
  • Nursing assistants take part in quality improvement teams
  • Nursing assistants know when a resident’s care plan has changed
  • Nursing assistants who receive extra training or education receive bonuses or raises
  • Nursing assistants can choose which the residents for whom they provide care

We found that the staff empowerment practices most commonly implemented by nursing homes included nursing assistants knowing when a resident’s care plan has changed and staff working together to cover shifts when someone can’t come to work, but it was uncommon for nursing homes to permit nursing assistants to choose which residents they care for [17].

Outcomes of Culture Change

Research over the past 2 decades has examined the outcomes of culture change and the challenges involved in its implementation. Culture change is intended to improve the quality of life for nursing home residents, but the impact of culture change interventions is not clear. Shier and colleagues [27] conducted a comprehensive review of the peer-reviewed and gray literature on culture change published between 2005 and 2012 and found that studies varied widely in scope and evidence was inconsistent. They concluded that there is not yet sufficient evidence to provide specific guidance to nursing homes interested in implementing culture change [27]. The reviewed studies (27 peer-reviewed and 9 gray literature) also were noted to include small sample sizes and restricted geographic coverage, which both limit generalizability.


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