22 July 2019
The title of this year’s Victorian Healthcare Week Great Debate was: Do We Need Mandated Staffing Ratios in Aged Care? Are we better off focusing on the quality outcomes for older Australians rather than mandated staffing ratios?
Lisa Giacomelli (Chief Operating Officer YMCA NSW) and I (Director, Aged Care Matters) received an invitation to speak on the opposing team. We were told we had been specially selected based not only on our expertise but also our ability to marry humour with intellect.
Lisa presented a strong case to show that mandating ratios does not guarantee quality. Lisa used examples from the childcare industry, an industry that has mandated ratios.
“I have worked in the child care industry for nearly a decade. Ratios are mandated there and services are audited and checked by the regulator to ensure they are ‘in ratio’.
“When something occurs in a service when things don’t go to plan, the first question asked is always: ‘Are we in ratio?’ And I can tell you the answer is almost always ‘yes’.
“Being in ratio does not prevent poor practice, it does not prevent care standards being upheld, or staff taking their eye off what they are meant to be doing, or clients acting in a way that wasn’t anticipated, or allergic reactions to medication or accidents, nor does it prevent policies and procedures being breached.
“In fact, ratios can have the opposite effect. The need to be ‘in ratio’ (a golden term in the children’s services industry) causes all kinds of stress for coordinators and directors who spend their time finding staff and managing rosters rather than focussing on quality of care, listening to the voices of children and dynamic educational leadership. It’s hard to be inspiring when you are struggling to ‘stay in ratio’.
“Mandated ratios result in a higher reliance on agency staff which, due to the inconsistent nature of agency staff who do not understand the service or know the children, can create inconsistency of care, lack of commitment to the service and the role and undermine the safety that children feel in a familiar and consistent environment. Agency staff, whilst doing their best, just cannot have the same engagement with service and organisational culture, or with clients than long serving staff can.
“They also create a false sense of security. It is not difficult to envisage services believing that as long as we are ‘in ratio’ we are offering good quality, engaged and inspired care. Management and leadership can take their focus off what staff are doing to focus on how many staff are doing it. Leadership becomes more about rosters and less about staff development, more about regulation and less about client experience, more about ‘not getting caught out’ and less about the very people that aged care services are there to serve. This is the danger of ratios and they can be dangerous.
“If you want to mandate quality care – mandate engagement with clients, families and communities. Ensure that staff culture is positive, resilient and empowering. Train the best and brightest and pay them that way.”
Sarah began by asking the audience to raise their hands if they wanted all older people living in all aged care homes to have the best quality of life possible. As you would expect, there was a sea of raised hands.
“I am a public health researcher and aged care advocate. My research shows there are good aged care homes. However, anybody who has paid even the slightest attention to the Royal Commission on Aged Care Quality and Safety knows that not all aged care homes are good.
“In any profit-based system that relies on government subsidies, like pink batts, private colleges and aged care, there are always some shonky providers. These shonky providers thrive because of systemic and regulatory failures.
“Will the systemic problems in aged care be miraculously fixed by mandating staff ratios? The answer is indisputably ‘No’. A shonky provider will make up the numbers with the cheapest, most unqualified staff possible.
“My colleague has presented a strong case to show you that mandating staff ratios in childcare centres does not guarantee quality. To the opposition, I say: ‘Be careful what you wish for’.
“The opposition has used the same arguments that have been shouted for years. These arguments regularly appear as memes on social media. In response, the peak bodies for providers tweet their own memes. The memes and tweetsgo back and forth but nothing changes.
“It is unusual for an aged care advocate not to support mandating staff ratios. Other aged care advocates get very exasperated with me. They tell me it is simply ‘common sense’ that more staff on duty = better service. This was certainly not the case at my local café last Friday when 2 regular, experienced, competent and cute waiters were sick. They were replaced with 2 agency staff who knew nothing about how the café operated – not even how to use the coffee machine or where to find the tomato sauce. They did not improve the quality of the service. In fact, they reduced it.
“To address the systemic issues in the aged care sector, we desperately need ethical leadership. We need someone with a kind heart and open mind who can see past the vested interests. We need a Nelson Mandela, Jacinda Adhern or Greta Thunberg.
“During the past few years, the usual suspects have shouted for staff ratios. The other usual suspects have shouted for more government money. There has been a lot of noise but no leadership.
“Good leaders bring people with diverse views with them. They build consensus not division.
“So what should an aged care leader do?
“Firstly, they should listen to all key stakeholders – not just those with the loudest voice. They would also listen to staff, families, community members and, most importantly older people themselves. They would then bring all key stakeholders to the negotiating table.
“A good leader would put something achievable on the negotiating table – something that all key stakeholders may agree on. I propose we start with staff transparency.
“Yesterday, Rebekha Sharkie re-introduced her Private Members Bill that requires every aged care home to disclose and publish quarterly staff/resident ratios.
“Shonky providers will lobby against this legislation. However, good aged care homes with high numbers of well-trained staff have nothing to fear from staff transparency.
“When we have accurate staffing data we can perform the research needed to develop evidence based staffing guidelines.
“Rather than Staff Ratios that cause division, Staff Transparency is a much better place to start.”