Throughout the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety (Royal Commission), many stories of neglect or substandard care heard, started with a complaint. Aged care providers reported to the Royal Commission that they had received over 79,000 complaints in relation to substandard care over a five-year period.1
During the hearings, witnesses stated complaints were often dealt with inappropriately and resulted in ongoing issues around quality of care within aged care services. Consumers felt that they had not been heard, were fearful of repercussions and had limited autonomy with the delivery of their care and support. In many stories, if the complaint had been managed appropriately, the likely outcome would have been vastly different for the consumer, their families, as well as the provider.
Given these challenges, it is unsurprising that the Commissioners identified ‘complaints’ as a key focus area in their recommendations, for both the regulator and providers.
Complaints was mentioned 34 times within 13 separate recommendations. Specifically, Recommendation 90 in relation to a new governance standard for aged care providers specifies that all approved providers should have a system for receiving and handling complaints.
Given the importance of complaints, both at a provider level, regulatory level and the potential for greater public reporting of complaints, it is critical that aged care providers consider how their complaints function aligns with best practice, and identify areas for improvement to meet the expectations of older Australians, their families as well as the Australian Government.
Negative experiences with aged care providers impact the consumer and their family’s perception of the aged care sector.
These negative experiences impact the individual aged care provider as well as the aged care sector more broadly. During the Royal Commission, significant concerns were raised that a complaint would in fact be detrimental to the care and support of the older Australian at the centre of the complaint. It is critical that aged care providers develop a mature complaints function that allows consumers to have trust in the system and that assures consumers that there are no consequences when making a complaint.2,3
Whilst negative experiences impact on the perception of an aged care provider, studies have shown that the way an organisation responds to a complaint has a positive effect on the organisation prior to the complaint. Nurses and aged care service managers agree that complaints are viewed as quality markers and quality enhancers for the organisation and are crucial assessing a resident’s well-being, quality of care and the possibilities for improvement.4
Complaints offer aged care providers an opportunity to engage with older Australians. Complaints identify how aged care providers can improve their service and operate in a more person-centred organisation.
Complaints are also a valuable tool that assist providers in making improvements in their organisation. An effective complaints system can identify potential systemic issues and challenges that can place an aged care service at risk for not meeting the standards in providing satisfactory care services to consumers in aged care services.
Common best practice themes and characteristics that leading providers demonstrate.
Complaints management is a critical component of operations for aged care providers and integral to delivering better outcomes for older Australians within the aged care sector.
Providers who want to ensure they are leading organisations in the sector need to treat complaints management as an organisation-wide priority and responsibility. This ensures transparency, accountability and stimulates a culture and desire for continuous improvement throughout the organisation.
Organisations, including aged care providers, that excel in excel at customer and complaints management do not perceive complaints as an isolated activity. Rather, complaints are embedded into consumer service disciplines and consumer journey designs.
Complaints are recognised and valued as opportunities to rectify issues at the cause, drive continuous improvement throughout the organisation and ultimately provide better outcomes for older Australians.
Aged care providers need to treat complaints as an organisation-wide priority and responsibility.
The key components of an organisation that embraces a complaints culture within their organisation include:
All team members within an organisation including care workers and health professionals should be trained in complaints management, and empowered to exercise their delegated authority and create the best outcome for older Australians and their families.
Vulnerability manifests itself in many forms, is dynamic in nature and not always self-declared.
As people age and develop comorbidities and complications, older Australians can become one of the most vulnerable groups in our community.
Staff must be well-trained to identify vulnerable older Australians under their care and understand how to empower vulnerable consumers to make complaints.
Staff should also have direct access to internal sources of expertise to train and assist with managing complaints from this vulnerable group, especially if they are experiencing any form of abuse.
In order to appropriately manage complaints raised by this vulnerable group, it is crucial address the ageist assumptions and attitudes amongst the broader community and health professionals who interact with older Australians.5 This will enable providers to listen intently to the dissatisfaction and concerns of their consumers.
These systems need to facilitate high volumes of complaints and long cycle times for redressal of complaints. Technological innovations can be used to improve the customer experience or drive efficiency and productivity in the organisation following a complaint, including:
Overall, complaints need to be perceived as opportunities to improve an aged care service and/or organisation, not as a negative attribute.
Providers need to have an accessible and transparent complaints system with strong executive sponsorship to drive improvement in delivery of care in aged care services to their consumers.
Addressing complaints is also a business strategy as it promotes positive consumer experiences through personalisation and a person-centred care approach. This will ensure older Australians have a positive experience, are satisfied with their care and provide the organisation and the aged care sector with opportunity for growth.
Insights related to aged care in Australia and the Aged Care Royal Commission.