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Aged care cannot afford to overlook complaints

As the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety progresses towards its final report in November, we can expect many high priority areas to receive attention – funding and staffing levels and the use of chemical restraints being just a few examples. Yet there’s one less high-profile issue that has the potential to define the success of recommendations made in all of these areas – and it must not be swept under the rug.

It’s a factor that could also affect how the aged care industry performs throughout the remainder of the COVID-19 outbreak – a pandemic which has been tragically ravaging aged care homes worldwide and is sure to be with us for some time.

That factor is how complaints are handled in the aged care sector.

Proper complaints management is the ultimate feedback mechanism, and it has the potential to provide a regular pulse on issues in so many areas, yet to date it has not been given anywhere near the emphasis that it deserves among aged care providers.

Instead, quality issues have been a minor part of information flows throughout aged care providers’ management systems, and many organisations have become complacent. Staff members who should have been called out for their behaviour have been allowed to continue; there was no way of recording and tracking how levels of complaints changed; red flags went amiss. What should have been priority number one – client-centred care – slipped down the list.

This is despite the introduction of the Aged Care Quality Standards last July, which asks that providers use complaints and feedback to improve care and service quality. This regulation is process focused, rather than outcome focused – encouraging providers to simply “tick the box” rather than make genuine change.

What’s at stake

Getting complaints management right is critical. It will save lives and improve the end-of-life experience of thousands of Australians. There are three key steps for providers who want to start treating complaints with the respect that they are owed and to use them to develop truly client-centred care.

A cultural change – and then a technological one

Step one is to prioritise a cultural change within your organisation, such that staff members and leaders view complaints as an opportunity for improvement. It comes from the top, and progressive service providers must provide open access to the CEO and/or board for lodging complaints so there is no filter.

Step two is to make the complaints system very open and accessible. While you may not wish to actively encourage complaints, it must be clearly felt and seen that there are no ramifications for offering them where necessary. In any system there will always be frivolous complaints, but rest assured that a properly managed system is able to identify those too.

Step three is to ensure that your complaints management system is not a standalone system but instead integrates with your overall management system. This integration will help to ensure that complaints reach the right people and can be responded to quickly. A complaint should trigger a response from senior leaders in the organisation, just as an incident like a fall or someone hurt on the job does today.

A dedicated complaints system

While many customer relationship management (CRM) system providers will claim to be able to provide complaints management solutions, these are customised versions of their original systems. For those who go down this route, they’ll often find that it’s hard and may not lead to optimal outcomes. You’re essentially trying to push a square peg into a round hole – complaints management is not core to what they do.

A better approach is to implement a system whose core capability is complaints management; one in which interoperability with your other management systems is built in, and in which there’s a portal that will allow you to easily keep tabs on the level and status of complaints.

Looking ahead

It is not far-fetched to say that had there been better complaints management in the sector to date, we may have stood a better chance of picking up on the tragic situations that ultimately led to the aged care royal commission in the first place.

This is because a proper complaints management system would have provided regular opportunities to raise and register concerns within the organisation in a systematic way, rather than having to wait for a whistleblower to decide things had gotten so far out of hand that going to the press was their only option.

It’s not too late, and the issue must not be ignored. One way or another, complaints management will become a bigger part of our aged care system, either through regulation or proactive action.

This is not a time for the industry to be defensive. It’s a chance to do right by your residents and get an edge on your competitors by delivering truly client-centred care.

Craig Porte is managing director at Civica Care, Asia Pacific.

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