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Photo to go with story on aged care and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aged care sector learnings have to extend beyond the pandemic

The aged care sector has largely navigated the challenging COVID-19 pandemic well but there is still significant work to do as we adjust to a new care regime.

That’s the view of a panel of experts assembled by Cannings Purple for a webinar entitled “Navigating care through COVID-19.”

All three experts – Cannings Purple’s National Director Karen Brown, Marsh Care Solutions’ Lyle Steffensen and Pitcher Partners’ Mark Harrison – said most aged care service providers had shown commendable resilience in the face of the coronavirus pandemic which arrived quickly and has so far claimed the lives of 27 people in residential care.

But each of them also took the opportunity to warn against complacency, urging the industry to continue to be prepared to adapt systems and processes in the face of changing circumstances, and to use lessons learned during the crisis in future planning.

“The big difference, I think, with COVID-19 is how quickly you need to be able to change your pandemic response,” Ms Steffensen explained.

“Sometimes you have to do that on an hourly basis. The biggest thing you can do is make your plan usable and flexible.

“There are a lot of plans that I’ve seen that have just been so picture-perfect but nobody can actually use them because they don’t know where to find stuff.

“Your actual pandemic response needs to be reviewed very regularly and I’m not saying every two weeks, because I think your plan [from] two weeks ago is too old.”

Ms Brown, who also guided Cannings Purple clients through the Aged Care Royal Commission,  said the sector’s response to COVID-19 and the way it communicated around the pandemic had helped restore elements of its reputation.

While evidence at the Royal Commission highlighted gaps in funding, training and resources and, in some cases, examples of neglect, the aged care industry’s response to the coronavirus had demonstrated clear purpose and highlighted priorities concerning the health and safety of those in care.

The changing face of communications

But Ms Brown also noted progress operators had made during COVID-19 was in danger of being reversed if they didn’t embed and refine the changes they had made.

“My take from a communications point of view would be to observe that lots of organisations have implemented incredible change in the past three months in the platforms they use to communicate with, not only their staff, but their residents and families and stakeholders,” she said.

“We talked to a lot of organisations at the outset [of the pandemic] who said ‘we do all our briefings face to face’. Well, that’s not possible anymore.

“[Aged care operators] have shifted very quickly, as the rest of the world has, to the new normal of using a broad range of digital platforms. We’ve helped clients with everything from webinars, through to podcasts and live chat rooms to engage with their staff.

“There are so many ways that providers can actually look now to really test their methods of communication and say ‘are they fit for purpose? Are they as engaging as they can be?

“And now that we’ve introduced FaceTime or Zoom calls with families, is that something we can actually embed into our permanent practice? Is that something that we can offer, not just because there’s a relative who can’t come in the front door, but because there is a relative in London who would really love to have a call with their mum once a week.

“I would really be looking for opportunities that come to reset the way that operators do their communications.”

From the board down

Mr Harrison said aged care learnings from COVID-19 should extend all the way to board level.

“I think the opportunity is there to do a self-assessment at a board level as to how you’ve gone and really look to improve or evolve the existing corporate governance structures,” Mr Harrison said.

“Some of the questions would be whether safety responsibilities were met, were communications effective, did the delegations of the board to the executive work effectively, and was the right information available to inform decisions on a timely basis?

“Some of those learnings will be really important to evolve the board from a governance perspective.

“From there, I think you’ve got to look at the new world that you live in and the impact it has on governance.

“While your memories are fresh, you should update your crisis playbook. There have been a lot of learnings in the last 10 weeks, let’s not lose them [because] corporate memories are short.”

From addressing the thorny issue of talent attraction and retention, to the importance of organisational strategic planning and perhaps even the permanent need for residential care visitors to prove they had been vaccinated against influenza – all three experts agreed that COVID-19 would significantly change the face of the aged care sector going forward.

Ms Brown hopes the pandemic and the responsibilities that have gone with it will not scare worthy people away from wanting to serve on boards of aged care operators.

“I think there’s a responsibility on the part of organisations to not only ensure their staff are well trained, but to ensure that your board members are also suitably equipped,” she said.

“The boards which have responded well in times of crisis – and this is not just around COVID-19 – have had the appropriate skill set sitting around the table to ensure there is good, clear decision making.

“I think people will continue to step up and want to make a difference [on boards], but I don’t doubt for a second that when people do their due diligence, they’ll do it very thoroughly, and be very mindful of what’s involved when stepping into these roles.

“I would sincerely hope that people still want to make that contribution.”

Karen Brown is Cannings Purple’s National Director and an expert strategist and crisis communicator, with experience across a variety of sectors – including aged careproperty, education, health, resources, agriculture and science. Contact Karen