Dr Norman Swan explores the COVID-19 impact on aged care in the future

Physician and ABC producer, journalist and broadcaster, Dr Norman Swan, expressed the need for costly changes in a fragmented and ill-working aged care sector, and outlined the suspected changes we should expect to see in the industry following COVID-19.

Posted by Liz Alderslade

A guest speaker at Leading Age Services Australia's (LASA) 'Ten Days of Congress' event, held from 12-23 October, Dr Swan provided his expertise around spreading viruses throughout history and how COVID-19 differed, including its detrimental impact on the aged care sector.

Dr Swan explained that COVID-19 was already known about before it started to spread as well as the suspected impacts of the virus on the population, including older people, if it manifested itself.

"When we change the way we live, new diseases arise. It is absolutely predictable that that happens," explains Dr Swan.

"This is an odd virus that behaves in a contagious way and it is a potentially very dangerous virus with a long tail.

"We in Australia failed miserably to prepare for this. So some aged care groups did create their own pandemic plan. I know one [provider] that presented it to the Aged Care Safety Commission, and it was ignored. Why have we got outbreaks in Victoria? Because of the way that we behaved.

"There is no bad eggs here if 160 residential aged care facilities were affected, it's a system problem… The system doesn't work... This could happen in any part of Australia if you have a significant community outbreak. Because as soon as it got into aged care facilities it can run riot. And it doesn't run riot evenly."

Dr Swan says Australia does not have the balance right between health care and aged care, and there is no older person centred system. 

He was critical of My Aged Care not providing person centred services to older people that need to access care.

Dr Swan also highlighted that there was a market failure in aged care which is not the fault of aged care operators but the fault of the Australian aged care system.

"If we don't learn that we have to get that balance right between health care and age care and wellness care, we are just going to be vulnerable the next time round," explains Dr Swan.

"We have got to somehow have a backend in residential aged care which keeps people safe with their autonomy in an environment that looks and feels like a home. And I don't know of any other way of doing that than introducing a significant level of health [and] medical expertise."

Dr Swan thinks palliative care is an important part of creating person centred care because palliative care can assist in reaching integrated health and wellbeing in aged care in a way that is sustainable since it is all about putting a person at the centre of their care.

He adds that all facilities need to have a compulsory Registered Nurse (RN) that undertakes and identifies risks, assesses them, and put in place symptom control. Then those RNs can engage lower trained staff about providing appropriate care.

Dr Swan was also very critical of the Government, especially around the poor handling of COVID-19 in the sector by the Commonwealth, even describing the implemented infection control strategies as "a bit of a joke".

Overall, he outlined the systematic issues with the aged care sector, which will not be cheap to fix if Australia wants to provide good quality aged care.

"This is complicated, it is not easy and it's a wicked problem, and the way it is funded does not help. And it's not helped that the Federal Government, quite frankly, has been incompetent and out to lunch on this," says Dr Swan.

"...I don't think we can hide behind, any longer, the notion that we can find any excuse for the fact that a residential aged care place is someone's home and, therefore, it excludes everything else. It doesn't. We have got to make the two work together. 

"We have got to use the opportunity of COVID-19 to integrate and provide depth to health and wellbeing and person centredness.

"Financial viability has got to be integrated into this. The Commonwealth has to step up to the mark and be much more sophisticated about how it manages aged care. But we as a community have to get behind and support the aged care sector and provide a better system moving forward."

The Ten Days of Congress also provided other insights into the aged care sector and its future with keynote speakers focussing their talks around the theme, Achieving an Amazing Ageing Experience.

There are ten main topics covered over this event including, building a culture of respect; ageing in place; workforce and culture; financials and funding; governance and risk; innovation, research and development; COVID-19 and aged care; international perspectives; marketing and communication, and the future of ageing.

LASA Chief Executive Officer, Sean Rooney, says, "The Ten Days of Congress welcomes the entire age services community to join us and explore how we can best deliver a future where every Australian can access an amazing ageing experience.

"Our aim is to create a world in which we can age with confidence, where we feel safe, respected and loved, and where we are supported to continue to live our lives to the full.

"We recognise ageing as a gift that highlights the success of our society, where we create better futures for the growing numbers of older Australians.

"Community, commitment and collaboration to achieve a once-in-a-lifetime change towards the best of ageing is a task of national importance."


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