How to Handle Complaints in the Aged Care Sector

- Monday, November 14, 2016

With Australia’s aging population, it comes as no surprise that the demand for various aged care services continues to escalate. It is also somewhat inevitable that complaints will rise, as aged clients and their loved ones navigate their expectations and emotions in a relatively challenging time. 

We examine the latest work of the aged care complaints commissioner, and how aged care providers can create their own best-practice system for handling complaints.

The current state of play

As noted in the 2015-2016 Aged Care Complaints Commissioner Annual Report, some 2,153 official complaints were made in the six months to June 30, 2016. Once a complaint is in train with this external body, the age care service provider must be ready for any and all actions to be taken by the commissioner. For example, Notices of Intention to Provide Directions are formal requests that providers can respond to with their version of events, plus plans for rectification where needed. 

It is therefore vital that any systems, investigations or responses developed internally hold up to scrutiny in terms of fairness and transparency. Matters can go further from this point, with the commissioner able to make referrals to the Aged Care Quality Agency. Complainants can also take their matter to the Commonwealth Ombudsman – and even to court.

It is clear that the best defence against external complaints is a pro-active internal mechanism for managing complaints. So – what might this entail?

A user-friendly aged care complaints system

The best complaints system is of course one that initially involves open listening by a provider on a daily basis. Are there issues brewing, or are the same informal ‘gripes’ being heard from different sources, for example? In aged care environments, it is important to establish a culture of openness, and to inform residents and their families of the various ways in which they might like to raise concerns. 

Secondly, an ideal complaints system will adopt the ‘no wrong door’ policy whereby staff are equipped to identify any complaints, no matter how or when they arise. Independence around sensitive issues is essential. Bringing those complaints back through the ‘right’ system channels – and getting the formal documentation right – will be the responsibility of the aged care provider and not the service user.

In this way, if or when complaints arise they can be dealt with in a swift and congenial manner. 

The need for a quality independent investigation

Knowing where and how to start investigating a complaint is a crucial first step. There are issues around privacy and procedural fairness that must be squarely faced, to ensure that all internal processes appear adequate to the parties – as well as to outside sources.

One aspect to take care with is verbal evidence provided by parties to the complaint. There is much to consider regarding permission to record, clarity around the issues and fairness in collection of details. Whether utilising an internal or professional external investigator, it is essential to understand the nuances of appropriate workplace investigation. 

Remember that any witnesses – staff, residents, volunteers and visitors – all need to be given a fair and consistent chance to be heard. Case law in the area demonstrates that the mishandling of evidence at this early stage by the service provider can have a direct impact upon the outcome of matters down the track.

In many cases, complaints within the aged care sector can reflect frustration, disappointment and other emotions related to service and care. At first instance, a listening ear and direct internal action will reduce the need for further escalation on a complaint. Yet sorting the serious from the less-so can be a challenge in these situations. 

A professional and independent workplace investigator can assist greatly in identifying limits within current complaints procedures, as well as ensuring vital consistency in the investigation of individual matters. 

Keeping up with process and procedural fairness in the workplace can be challenging. That's why we have developed the Workplace Investigation Toolkit.   Provide best practice principles and keep your business out of the Fair Work Commission.   Get yours here today.

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