The reputation of the aged care sector and individual providers will inevitably be damaged by the evidence expected at the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, which started on February 11. The sector faces significant reform, which has already been flagged, but the reputational damage to individual organisations will rest on their commitment to change before that change is defined. Providers that approach the commission and its outcomes with honesty, transparency and a focus on solutions before they are imposed can influence the future of an industry that is yet to align with consumer expectations.
Considering that the aged care industry has generally deployed a strategy of avoidance to mitigate risk, the question is whether providers are adequately prepared for the conduct and aftermath of the royal commission.
This inquiry will be more brutal than the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, as the vulnerability of Australia’s elderly and the inadequacies of the industry is laid bare. The fallout will be far worse because of the emotive nature of aged care and the almost universal community directly linked to an aged care experience through family, friend or self.
No provider will escape the impact of the commission, and business and personal reputations will be at stake.
Journalists will be reporting in real time, just as they did at the banking royal commission.
Social media was the genesis of the wave of family discontent that led to the royal commission and it will again play a disproportional role in the fury the inquiry will reveal. Families and residents will find the courage to speak up, spurred on by the personal stories that will lead this inquiry, creating a contagion force.
Providers need to consider potential risks not just in terms of known clinical shortcomings but also where a misalignment in expectations has created an issue. The public’s expectation of the care environment can be at odds with the palliative nature of aged care and the experience of people at the bedside.
An argument of clinical adherence or expected clinical consequences will fail to turn the tide of public opinion and serve only to fuel the growing sentiment of a sector that has lost touch with its purpose.
Provider led change is the only defence that has the power to influence consumer opinion and contribute to a positive future state. Providers need to show they care and are not only willing but already enforcing change, even where the clinical evidence is on their side.
And while there are likely to be many positive stories that providers will want to share, they should remember the terms of the royal commission are about calling out the industry’s failings and misconduct. Telling a good story could backfire unless it is organically led by residents and families. That potentially exists, because the reputation of the aged care sector is also one that has been skewed. There are hundreds of stories of exceptional care and there will be a time and place to ensure these are heard.
How each provider responds to all of this could temper the extent of reputational, operational and commercial damage. The industry needs to anticipate how the media is going to report on the commission and how consumers, their families, shareholders and other stakeholders are going to respond.
How can providers prepare?
Rather than just reacting to the problem, aged care providers need to think about how they position themselves to be part of the solution.
Providers must first start communicating with their stakeholders – residents, their families and friends, staff and shareholders – and the general public, early, often and openly.
Providers need to be armed with detailed information that gives integrity and confidence to the processes and procedures that exist in aged care facilities when issues become known, and support a culture of immediate reaction and rectification.
And finally, providers need to acknowledge the seriousness of issues at hand, the fragility of the sector at large, and the impact of issues on aged care residents, employees, their families and friends. Providers should speak with humility and empathy.
Take steps to fix the problem
Action will be critical and will be the deciding factor in terms of how people view aged care organisations during and after the royal commission.
The aged care sector is essential, and according to research conducted by McCrindle, Australia’s population pyramids visually show the growth of Australia’s ageing population. In 2044 the population pyramid will become inverted with the number of over 60s outnumbering the under 18s for the first time.
According to the report, the over 85s are growing at an even faster rate than the over 65s. In 1984 there were 120,862 Australians aged over 85. Today, there are four times as many, and in 2044 there will be 14 times as many.
The aged care sector is essential and will form the cornerstone of Australian society in the near future. We will need more aged care providers, not fewer and so the outcomes of this Royal Commission and how the industry reshapes and reforms will be crucial.
Providers will need to think about aged care differently, learn from the evidence and public reaction to the information presented, and start to consider what the new standard of care looks like.
Positive change in the industry will be welcomed by all, and any organisation that doesn’t acknowledge this will be seen as part of the problem, not the solution.
Rebecca Wilson is chief executive at WE Buchan and specialises in complex stakeholder engagement and communication including critical incident response, issues management and mitigation, reputation protection and crisis management, investor relations, corporate transactions (M&A, IPO) and board and management advice.Do you have an idea for a story?
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