Teaching aged care homes proven to improve care – but boards and CEOs must be engaged to ensure success, Wicking Dementia Centre argue

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Senior management is key to ensuring that student placement programs in aged care homes are successful, according to a panel of academics and researchers who have rolled out the model in facilities across Australia.

For just over an hour, Senior Counsel Assisting Peter Rozen QC questioned Professor James Vickers (pictured below), the Director of the Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre at the University of Tasmania; and the Centre’s Professor Emeritus, Professor Andrew Robinson (pictured above) – who appeared separately via video link – around their experience with the University’s teaching aged care facility program which they established in 2011.

Prof Robinson – who established the Wicking Centre in 2008 with Prof Vickers and was also a member of the Aged Care Workforce Taskforce – said building leadership capability was essential for aged care teaching programs to be sustainable.

“You really have to have the board and you have to have the CEO and all the senior leaders actively engaged in an arm of the project, because to support the large-scale interprofessional placements in that complex environment, you have – the organisation will have to change,” he said.

The Prof said they regularly met with the board and changed the way staff were allocated in order to enhance the placements – and students, staff and residents all benefited.

“The students supported each other a lot and it actually worked really well and the facilitates became alive and the quality of life of residents in their eyes and the eyes of their families improved, that turned around to saying we actually should have students all the time, not just in set blocks,” he said.

Case in point: all four facilities in Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia that Wicking recruited under their program are still doing interprofessional student placements today.

“They all want to do their best for the residents so if something that is happening that is really good for residents and really good for staff the then the board will absolutely buy into that,” Prof Robinson stated.

Prof Robinson did agree with Dr Kate Barnett’s opinion from the earlier panel that placement programs that were based on existing partnerships between providers and universities tended to be most successful.

He also advocated for a facilitator within the provider to smooth the process of bringing students into facilities – and a similar position within the university.

“The devil is always in the detail so you need a lot of structures and processes to support yourself through that or it can very quickly fall over,” he said.

The Professor also said there also needs to be a level of dementia literacy among participants, so they are engaged in innovation and a focus on dementia-friendly communities – plus the funding to match, pointing to Norway as an example.

“Every year in the health budget there’s a budget line for teaching nursing homes,” he noted. “There’s current funding for teaching nursing homes.”

However, asked about whether he would recommend Norway’s ‘hub and spokes’ model for teaching aged care homes to the Commissioners, the Professor revealed he had already applied to the Department of Health in 2013-14 for a program – and was turned down.

Despite this, Professor Vickers – who is also the Dean of Medical Sciences at the University and a board member of aged care provider Glenview – pointed out that the Commonwealth funds a similar model here through the rural health multidisciplinary training program.

“But like Andrew has indicated it needs to be funded substantially like we did around teaching aged care facilities and really to this day is funded very and supported very leanly in terms of budget and budget costs,” he said. “So, it really does require a substantial additional funding outside your normal university budget.”

This could be overseen by a statutory body and built into the aged care standards with recognition i.e. increased pay for aged care staff who do undertake professional development, he added.

The Commissioners were on board with this idea.

“So clearly what we’re talking about here is structured education and learning of the sort that you both talked about, together with career pathways or which are clearly career pathways but salary increments that are associated with that,” Commissioner Lynelle Briggs summarised. “So, there’s some reward for that additional effort and skill.”

“That’s right,” agreed Prof Vickers.

This program requires funding however – and the Government has just blown its surplus on the response to the coronavirus.

Where will they find the money to fund these innovations?