Power and potential of better consumer engagement

Thinking differently about engagement can help to transform aged care services, writes Andrea Petriwskyj.

Thinking differently about engagement can help to transform aged care services, writes Andrea Petriwskyj.

Rethinking the roles of consumers, and the ways they can influence and shape care, must be a top priority if we are to realise the change we are all seeking in the aged care sector.

Consumer engagement is a vital – but unfortunately sometimes missing – ingredient in the sector’s transformation. Amongst the current uncertainty and pressure, there is an opportunity for change leadership from those who understand the incredible potential of engagement.

Aiming to meet standards not enough

Andrea Petriwskyj

Engagement includes all the ways providers communicate with and involve consumers and stakeholders. It is foundational to quality care and is embedded throughout the Aged Care Quality Standards. Meeting the standards for care quality requires commitment to ongoing engagement and responsiveness.

But while some providers continue to have difficulty meeting requirements, others recognise that the standards should not be their benchmark for performance. Compliance is the minimum requirement, not the goal. So, what can you change to transform the way you work?

Consumers, clients, community – look at people differently

An ongoing challenge for aged care has been that policy, funding models and often care philosophies have created a top-down, hierarchical and disempowering operational system. Consumers and families can be too often seen as beneficiaries, recipients or at best customers to be served.

Risks need to be minimised, complaints dealt with, and expectations managed. But what if, instead of just dealing with complaints and feedback, there was a sense of curiosity and an opportunity to learn? What if each problem that arose and challenged the way things work in the organisation was treated as a door to new ideas? What if consumers and care partners weren’t just seen as customers, but as knowledgeable people with wisdom, expertise, skills, and ideas that can help solve problems and drive innovation?

“Compliance is the minimum requirement, not the goal.”

Providers across the sector are grappling with significant challenges and a changing landscape. In designing their responses, organisations need to ensure they are equipped not just to meet changing requirements, but to evolve to future consumer expectations. Fostering a dynamic, learning culture that prioritises partnership with key stakeholders – including consumers, their families and support networks, and communities – can help to drive your organisation forward.

Deepen consumer influence

Traditional models of engagement in aged care tend not to extend far beyond consultation. Consumers are surveyed, asked for ideas and feedback and given options. These mechanisms have their place but relying on them is limiting. In this environment of change, uncertainty, staff shortages and stress, it can seem simpler to keep decision-making in the easier-to-manage inner circle of your management team. But containing the process carries its own risks and misses a huge opportunity for your organisation.

If aged care is to truly transform – and if your organisation is to be a leader – this is not the time for more of the same. The sector must commit to deeper involvement, including co-design of services and improvements with consumers – not simply consulted, or feedback to shape decisions, but actively involved in identifying priorities and designing solutions.

“If your organisation is to be a leader – this is not the time for more of the same.”

A helpful starting point is to map the engagement activities in the organisation or service, how they are used, and what they inform. This would include your communications as well as standard mechanisms like surveys, complaints and feedback, consumer or resident meetings, consumer advisory groups, committees and a range of others depending on the nature of your services.

Laying out what you’re already working with in this way helps show the immediate opportunities for deeper consumer involvement. Complaints, feedback and survey findings can be an opportunity to bring together people with good and bad experiences to discuss and develop solutions. Consumer advisory groups can be forums not just for comment and feedback, but for creativity. Communications are not only for you to share information and  priorities, but can be a space for your community to create and share with each other around issues that are important to them.

Broaden the scope

Across the sector we tend to see deeper engagement and more collaborative approaches focused at the level of individual or sometimes service decisions. In other words, when providers say they work in partnership with consumers, they often mean they work in partnership when the decisions impact that individual’s care, or potentially work collaboratively with a group of consumers on decisions that impact at a smaller service level. Of course, that kind of partnership is an issue of people’s basic rights and should be a significant focus. However, consumers’ spheres of influence should not be limited to their own individual care or their own service. They should extend to the whole organisation and beyond to the broader system.

In my previous article, I discussed the potential for – and steps toward – consumers being involved in the broad range of business activities, and in strategic change and major projects happening across the sector. Older people need to be full collaborators in decision-making and part of planning, strategic thinking, and prioritisation as citizens and key organisational stakeholders.

People who use aged care services, their families and communities have an extraordinary amount of knowledge, skills, ideas and connections. Drawing on these through collaborative processes helps to ensure that people are part of decisions that affect them, and also that the outcomes of decision-making are appropriate and effective – at a business, not only individual, level.

Where are your opportunities?

But most exciting when we look at engagement this way, is the potential to fundamentally transform how aged care looks and works. Leading providers are seizing these opportunities to rethink how they work and be at the forefront of change. While the potential for change is enormous, the process need not be overwhelming. Existing projects and processes provide a foundation from which to experiment, build organisational capacity, and to work with consumers to develop a new way of operating.

When we talk with any provider about what they have on their agendas, there are always opportunities across their business to open to greater consumer input and involvement. What are yours?

Andrea Petriwskyj is research and education coordinator at COTA Queensland. She works with aged care providers to enhance their engagement with consumers and other stakeholders

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Tags: Andrea-Petriwskyj, consumer engagement, COTA Queensland,

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