Mistakes are often made in aged care – sometimes medication is missed, people don’t get fed or washed properly, or there’s simply a lack of communication and family feel out of the loop.

But these mistakes aren’t exclusive to aged care, in fact, similar things like this happen in hospitals and clinics too. But the way they handle those issues are handled in hospitals is often worlds apart from how some aged care facilities deal with it.  

This is because of the “complaint culture” that hospitals have created for themselves, and the systems they have in place; something that aged care could learn a thing or two about.

Their system isn’t perfect, and no one is suggesting that it is, but when compared to how aged care deals with complaints, hospitals are doing a better job.

In hospitals, it’s seen that they are more open to reporting shortcomings. Staff are more willing to actively seek feedback and patients are encouraged to write formal complaints.

In aged care, there tends to be more of a culture of fear and panic when it comes to complaints.

Facilities worry about what it means for their reputation and their funding, and if the complaint is bad enough, they could be sanctioned.

Now we don’t want to tar every aged care facility with the same brush – but it’s important to talk about it.

There are a number of reasons why facilities in the aged care sector have such a defensive reaction, and it primarily stems from the origins and history of where ‘nursing homes’ or ‘old aged’ homes come from.

Aged care facilities generally speaking have been lucky with often high occupancy levels or waiting lists. And as many facilities were always ‘full’, they’ve been long able to get away with the attitude of “like it or leave it”, putting customer service on the back burner.

In the case of home care packages providers previously were referred clients from My Aged Care when a package became available – but now they need to attract new clients based on the quality of their service and reputation.

These worries we talk about may stem from the “bad reputation” that lingers over aged care as an industry, fairly or unfairly. People may not realise it, but aged care homes were originally established as institutions for the poor and sick in the 17th century.

And in these places, customer service was non-existent and the care was rather poor. Eventually, these types of “homes” ceased to exist, primarily because they were inhumane.  

Since then, aged care homes have come very far in terms of legitimacy, care and reputation. But there is often still that fear lingering over them that if they do anything wrong or out of line, then it’s the end of the road for them.

But that really shouldn’t be the case – aged care should not hide away from their mistake, feeling like they need to “cover it up” or pretend like it didn’t happen out of fear or retribution.

The complaint culture in hospitals is far more acceptable – which often stems from good leadership, adopting and promoting this mindset throughout the organisation.

What aged care needs across the board – without generalising too much, is that employees should be encouraged to own up to their mistakes and when they do there should be systems in place that work with the individual to upskill or prevent it from happening again.

In 2014, The Department of Social Services released the Better Practice Guide to Complaint Handling in Aged Care Services.

It states that “complaints provide learning opportunities that look at why something happened and how it can be improved. The traditional approach of looking at what happened and who is to blame creates barriers to good complaints management.”

“A positive attitude towards complainants and a commitment to resolving complaints will create a noticeable improvement in client satisfaction.”

In it, suggests that resolving a complaint within the service prevents issues from being raised with the government bodies, such as the Aged Care Complaints Commissioner, unnecessarily.

Going on to say that “most complaints can be resolved without [Commissioner] involvement.”

Rae Lamb, the Aged Care Complaints Commissioner last year suggested that aged care providers should be required to provide information about disputes and complaints.  

Essentially naming and shaming themselves. And that they should detail the number and types of complaints they receive, as well as how they were resolved.

This, some may argue, is a bit extreme as no facility would want to “air out their dirty laundry”.

Perhaps we aren’t here yet – and maybe we will never be more publically. But what’s needed is a culture of actively accepting feedback, supporting one another when a mistake or near miss occurs and being brave to admit our faults.

After all we are all in the industry to provide quality care to our elders and this should never be compromised to save our own reputation.

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