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From retail to education and from hospitality to mining, there isn’t a single sector that hasn’t been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenges faced by the aged care sector have been particularly devastating. Over 4 000 people have died in aged care facilities since the beginning of the pandemic. The pandemic has unquestionably been the biggest challenge the sector has ever faced.

As one of the largest service industries in Australia, the aged care sector employs around 350 000 people and serves over one million consumers. In other words, the effect the pandemic has had on the sector has been drastic both in its scope and its severity, with the impacts continuing to be felt for years to come.

Are we actually “post-pandemic”?

The aged care sector wasn’t just in a unique position during the height of the pandemic, but continues to battle with singular challenges to this day. While much of society seems to have moved on and life appears to be, in large part, back to normal, aged care facilities continue to face outbreaks of COVID-19 with dire consequences.

Alarmingly, 75% of all COVID related deaths in aged care have taken place in 2022, according the federal statics. Even as society at large appears to be settling into a post-pandemic existence, the aged care sector needs to continue to balance fighting off outbreaks with maintaining residents’ quality of life. As the past years have shown us, striking that balance is no easy feat.

Prioritising the quality of life

Protecting not only life but the quality of life is one of the things that the pandemic has brought into sharp focus. As the pandemic first set in, we all received a stark reminder of just how important social relationships are for our overall health and wellbeing. As aged care facilities became isolated to ward off infections, residents were cut off from their loved ones for extended periods of time.

Social interactions are a crucial part of one’s quality of life, and as such, maintaining them should be a top priority for all healthcare providers. The need to prioritise the quality of life was also one of the key takeaways from a special report by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. Moving forward, the aged care sector needs to find ways to ensure consumers’ quality of life, whether they are residing in an aged care facility or receiving in-home care, while also protecting the vulnerable from potentially fatal infections.

A critical eye on digital initiatives

From remote learning to endless Zoom meetings, the COVID-19 pandemic drove life online. Sometimes it worked just fine. Sometimes, it even made life easier. But relying on digital tools and technology definitely didn’t work for all people, in all situations. The drastic push for digitalisation is particularly challenging with the elderly population. According to data from the eSafety Commission, over one third of Australians over the age of 50 are considered to be at a low digital literacy level, or are digitally disengaged. 43% of Australians aged between 70-79 do not own a smartphone. For those over 80, the number is as high as 66%.

Beyond these practical challenges, the pandemic also proved that while digital tools can help, they cannot replace direct human interaction, whether it’s with a loved one or a healthcare provider. The aged care sector needs to be able to evaluate critically when and how digital tools are actually contributing to the patient experience, rather than going digital for the sake of it.

Meeting the needs of the future

As the Australian population ages, more and more people are target=”_blank”>delaying residential care, preferring to receive in-home care for as long as possible. In practice, this means people will remain at home until the last possible moment and will then often require a hospital visit before transitioning into an aged care home due to their deteriorated health.

This had been the trajectory even before the pandemic. But the negative media coverage of aged care homes during the pandemic is very likely to have exasperated the trend even further. This means residents are entering nursing homes in a state where they will require an advanced level of care. This will put an even greater strain on a sector that is already stretched thin, with the demand for medical personnel predicted to continue to significantly exceed supply in the future. Moving forward, managing work in a way that prioritises both patient experience and employee satisfaction will go from being important to being a necessity.

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