Pandemic has lessons for health and aged care

Catholic health and aged care operators are calling on government to create clear lines of communication to avoid the confusion that beset the sectors at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a review into operations has found.

Frequent government requests for information, inability to contact senior government staff, and a surge workforce that was untrained and unprepared to work with COVID-19 patients were challenges also faced by the operators, according to the report, Lessons Learnt from COVID-19.

The report was compiled by Catholic Health Australia in conjunction with Australian Catholic University, and surveyed executives from four major providers in Victoria: Mercy Health, St John of God Healthcare, St Vincent’s Health Australia and Villa Maria Catholic Homes.

It found that while Australia's medical system and governments could claim credit for beating COVID-19, the operators and bureaucracies learned valuable lessons from the experience.

Unlike Europe and other countries around the world, the vast majority of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Australia occurred in aged care facilities, particularly in Victoria, and not in hospitals, which were expecting their intensive care units to be inundated with cases.The report outlines areas in which Catholic facilities performed well during Wave 1 and Wave 2 of the pandemic in 2020, among them:

  • Strong leadership that put in place a centralised team that was able to adapt quickly and efficiently to the changing level and focus of threat;
  • A willingness to make difficult decisions independent of government;
  • Thorough and regular communication with staff, patients and residents and their families;
  • The advance purchasing of PPE stocks and PPE training for staff and
  • Early implementation of a policy to encourage staff to work on a single sites

 The report also details operators’ efforts to keep their facility operating, particularly in relation to staff infection and consequent staff furlough. Fatigue among all levels of staff and an abiding fear of infection also took their toll, resulting in an important shift in focus to staff health and welfare.

The trauma of barring visits to aged care residents also created problems, even though some operators relaxed their protocols out of compassion to accommodate those who were dying or in distress.

The report catalogues the challenges and pressures experienced by operators during the 2nd Wave of COVID-19 in Victoria.

  • Lack of senior expertise in public health units;
  • Absence of pandemic planning at Government level and health facility level;
  • Multiple daily requests for information from different Government agencies;
  • The need to assess and action multiple daily announcements by both the State and Federal Governments;
  • Poor training of some members of the surge workforce, and inappropriate arrangement for accommodation;

The report – undertaken by ACU’s Faculty of Health Sciences – lists 14? recommendations for operators at an organisational level; 9 for health services and 5 for government.

Catholic Health Australia CEO Pat Garcia said the review’s findings would serve as a template for what to do, and what not to do, in future pandemics.

“It’s clear the health and aged care landscape has changed irrevocably with COVID19. Our members were forced to adapt in very testing circumstances and they did very well to do so”.

“However, pandemics teach us there is no room for complacency, so this review has been a valuable exercise for us to take stock about what we did well and what could be done better”.

“Our members are willing and able to work with government on how we can be COVID-prepared for the inevitable third or fourth wave that will hit these shores. We want to share these lessons with government to ensure that next time we are on the right footing.”


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