The piece below by Rhod Ellis-Jones was published in the December/January edition of Aged Care Insite.
It is astounding the quality and diversity of work the Australian aged care sector does. Why then does consumer research and media reporting consistently point to sentiment that is uninformed or, worse, negative?
In consumer focus groups, the perception that the aged care experience is dark and unfulfilling persists. A lot of this has to do with the lack of actual contact many people have with aged care. Also that, when they do have a connection, it’s to visit someone periodically and thus never form a relationship with the company or its staff. However, it is also because this sector does not measure the positive impact it has on the community beyond clients, residents and families in order to communicate it.
Conversely, the message emerging from providers and advocates has been consistently negative or, at best, mixed for well over a decade, intensifying since 2006. Following a Productivity Commission inquiry, reform announcements and a bloody, drawn-out election, the sector has been focusing on funding shortfalls and labour shortages which, although important, send a message that service is less than it can be; or should be.
It’s not that real and present funding and structural issues don’t exist: they do. But the people who inhabit the communities of which providers form an important part, have been well trained to think less than the best.
Aged care providers are community assets: they do not provide services to the community, they are the community. Facilities are usually staffed by local people who spend their dollars locally so they are important local economic contributors.
More importantly, aged care contributes to whole of community confidence. At a fundamental level, there is a welcome and justified expectation that parents or grandparents – our own or our neighbours’ – will receive the highest standard of care should they need it. Aged care is insurance: there is care available if and when you need it.
This availability of quality care relates to how we view ourselves. Our sense of identity is informed by the aspects of community life we value: a great pub, the local school, a continental deli and a quality aged care service. Aged care is a reflection of what a community stands for: ‘we care for our elders’. It is community pride embodied in the actions of devoted carers and families.
Consumer Directed Care (CDC) will mean localised tailoring of services based on cultural life, socio-demographics and competition. Every provider will need to invest in research and community engagement to define the need, and then create and ‘sell’ a service back to the community. This occurs at the time the sector is experiencing a consumer demographic shift to older baby boomers: expectations are changing and, consequently, there are far greater opportunities to raise revenue and differentiate services.
So what is the ‘aged care value proposition’?
To look at marketing and communication across the sector in aggregate, it would be ‘high quality care’ with added messages of compassion, dignity and stylish accommodation. This doesn’t capture the outcomes of aged care for everyone living in a tight-knit community. It addresses the need of a consumer that needs care now but the benefits of the sector’s presence and activities go way further.
The aged care value proposition is positive social impact. After years of analysis and reform, now we have a great opportunity to quantify and communicate it.
Because of the social compact we hold with the community, we can recast the relationship we have with current and future consumers – and their influencers – by defining our shared purpose: a life changing aged care experience that reflects community needs/desires and world’s best practice.
Providers can innovate services with older people, going beyond standard market research and community consultation methods to sustained, ongoing co-creation of products and services. In this way, providers will be absolutely confident of meeting demand which, in turn, represents accurate decision making and lower business risk. It also means the impact aged care stands to have will escalate as we better understand the social challenges facing communities and target them.
To understand the very real social impact of aged care, we need to broaden the set of metrics currently used to benchmark the sector and demonstrate compliance with government regulations. They need not be complex but they need to go beyond ‘satisfaction’ surveys.
The first step is to understand what matters to community members, for example: peace of mind, social inclusion, responsiveness to change. Enlisting the support of local groups to measure these and other impacts draws the community around the purpose of providers which is, ultimately, care for the elderly. It will also provide a voice for aged care providers in local and Australian community life to speak beyond age care to ageing in modern society, an important public discourse we have only just begun.
There is a significant opportunity for providers to collaboratively measure impact and report to the community, starting with a simple set of metrics as a benchmark and base from which to build. Peak industry groups and providers spanning multiple communities can take a lead role.
Now is the time for a new narrative for Australian aged care. Let’s make it the positive impact we have on the lives of all Australians, not just those in our care.
Here’s one example of how it can be done. In 2012, Vasey RSL Care began a process called Together Tomorrow with the RSL network, its employees, its residents and clients, and their families. The purpose was to understand the market for its services now and predict how it may change. Janna Voloshin, General Manager Residential Services, describes the outcome:
“The work provided lucid insight into who we are and what our organisation represents,” Voloshin says. “We now have a clear understanding of what our customers want, what we should offer them and who we need to reach. This landmark project has made us proud of who we are and what we represent. There is greatest sense of pride in the difference we make and the welcome responsibility with which we are entrusted. We are much more confident in decisions we are making and the stakeholder engagement, marketing anbd internal communications activities we are implementing”.