24 November 2017
Dr Ayman Shenouda
National Aged Care Quality Regulatory Processes Review
The recent Review of National Aged Care Quality Regulatory Processes was released on 25 October. The review looked at past failures in terms of the limitations of the regulatory controls to recognise abuse and care issues. It’s emphasis, therefore, was on improved regulatory measures to improve national monitoring arrangements.
Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt, in his announcement on releasing the report, stated that the majority of facilities provide excellent care and are working to continually improve services. Some might argue that media reports of endemic abuse in nursing homes paint a very different picture. That aside, the Minister stated that focus was on seeing improvements to the system that can address those not delivering quality care.
Aged care safety and quality
It is appropriate for the review to have a core focus on safety and quality. The capacity of the current regulatory environment to protect residents from ‘restrictive practices’ is of course appropriate. A key recommendation was the use of unannounced audits across Australia’s residential aged care facilities (RACF). This is a positive outcome and the commitment by the government to implement this recommendation quickly is also positive news.
There were 10 recommendations in total to improve aged care resident protections through more transparent compliance and monitoring. Other key recommendations included establishing an independent Aged Care Quality Commission with provision for a quality commissioner, complaints commissioner, consumer commissioner as well as a chief clinical advisor. This new commission would develop and maintain a centralised database with the view of creating a star-rated system on provider performance.
In addition, there would be more protections to curb abuse which would see a recommendation from the Australian Law Reform Commission for a new independent serious incident response scheme (SIRS). On accreditation and compliance, the unannounced visits were the major recommendation with more public disclosure on matters of non-compliance. In addition, if supported, there would be strengthened controls around medication reviews and compliance. Medication reviews were recommended on admission, after hospitalisation, upon deterioration or when changing medication regimes.
Where’s the focus on general practice?
This is an important body of work but again we see a lack of insight into the key role of general practice in aged care service provision. This is another example of a review which has missed an opportunity to ensure a stronger role for GPs. There should have been scope to work through key issues including those areas of clinical governance as a key quality enhancement measure.
It’s all very well to make sure that there are controls to pick up those not doing the right thing. But doesn’t it make better policy sense to place an equal emphasis on why the issues are there in the first place?
It is very disappointing that this review did not extend to service solutions through general practice.
This oversight being on the back of the recent Productivity Commission’s 5-year productivity review – Shifting the Dial - which also underplayed the role of general practice in a discussion which focussed on prevention and primary care.
To a certain extent, even the changes in Victoria with the voluntary assisted dying legislation seem to lack a focus on service capability. Palliative care is one area which lacks clarity in terms of roles and most certainly there is a lack of data, fed by physician only item numbers, which can only constrain services and planning. GPs too do a lot in this area but this mostly goes unnoticed and underfunded. Ensuring there are funding levels to enabling access to palliative care services should be a priority moving forward.
Valuing general practice
Why is there a lack of focus on general practice? It’s clear that success in terms of prevention makes us far less visible. Such is our role that if we do it well then it goes unnoticed. Best practice interventions for heart disease and stroke, for example, will translate over time through improvements in data. But there’s a very limited audience with not many from outside of the profession interested in this level of detail.
The RACGP has made strong investments in recent years to lift our profile. However, the lack of focus is still a key problem. This is evident in this latest report where glaring service solutions – solutions to lift quality - have been again overlooked.
The missing GP perspective
In a recent Medical Observer article by Professor Leanne Rowe, ‘Why are GPs missing for the national aged care review?’, this lack of focus was also seen as a key issue which limited the report’s findings. The review failed to acknowledge the critical role of GPs in improving the quality of care in these facilities.
Those obvious service issues, central to ensuring quality, were ignored. A focus on quality needs to also look at ways to make improvements including through stronger staffing and appropriate skill mix levels.
The role of the GP is clearly limited due to low rates of reimbursement through the MBS. Optimal models of care cannot work in an underfunded service environment.
GP-led care or collaborative care solutions are relevant to achieving those safeguards for residents sought through this review. Stronger integration of GPs and improved collaboration with aged care staff and formalising these models of care would assure safe and high quality coordinated care for residents.
More broadly, variable skillsets are important factors that impact on quality of care standards in these facilities. Inadequate staffing levels including the need for more skilled nursing staff is central to many of the quality and compliance issues central to this review. The recent Senate community affairs committee report made specific recommendations in this regard and again it is very relevant to a review focused on quality.
Ensuring there are transparent and workable processes in place to uphold standards and community expectations in terms of care is very important. The recommendations offered through this review will go a long way towards strengthening these. But a great deal of the issues relates to the corporate ownership structure of the RACFs. More specifically, the limitations that brings in terms of ensuring quality service provision.
Improving the lives of older Australians needs a firm policy focus and we’re starting to see that through this Minister. There is an opportunity to build off this review to fix some of those glaring issues limiting the quality of care. I’d like to see a stronger role prioritised for general practice and formalised in national policy. Limitations in terms of remuneration which also fail to capture the complexity of this care needs addressing. Valuing the role of the aged care workforce more broadly is central to ensuring quality outcomes. There’s so much more to be done here to ensure older Australians receive the care they deserve and we cannot afford to drop the focus on GP-led care solutions