Digital services have played a crucial role in the aged care sector’s response to COVID-19. Across the country, aged care providers are using technology in new ways to ensure continuity of care, and in just three months, every care provider in Australia has embedded technology within their service delivery teams.
Sector leaders have been working towards a ‘high-tech, high-touch’ vision, recognising that technology can support better outcomes for clients, address work-force shortages, and create a more sustainable industry. COVID-19 has changed the game, catalysing the use of technology that can and bring about the ‘Next Normal’ in aged care services.
As people self-isolated, older Australians became more comfortable with technology
In Australia, our response to COVID-19 was informed. We understood the virus was highly contagious, and that older people were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Because of this, we were proactive when considering measures to protect older people.
As early as February, we heard stories of families speaking to their parents and grandparents through windows. In March, aged care homes were asked to limit visits to only those deemed necessary. This is something that affected my family – my grandpa is currently in palliative care in an aged care home.
There is already evidence telling us that in the face of isolation, older people have shifted everyday activities like going to church, grocery shopping and seeing children and grandchildren ‘online’.
Lively is a home care provider in Melbourne that employs younger people to help older people stay connected and live well. As it became clear that COVID-19 would isolate many older people, Lively launched a response package that offered free, practical support to seniors. In March and April, more than 50% of enquiries from older people specifically requested support with “getting online to connect with family and friends”.
At Umps, over the same period we experienced a significant increase in sales of technology directly to older people, rather than family members purchasing it on their behalf.
As restrictions in some states are eased, older Australians will continue to experience the convenience, connection, and cost-savings offered by technology. These are services that no one gives up – they have value beyond a response to COVID-19, and people now know they can receive these services from their aged care provider.
Aged care providers have developed a technology capability within every team and every role
It’s not just consumers that have moved online to remain connected. To ensure service-continuity, everyone working in aged care has become more dependent on technology.
In community care, people in client-facing roles often work from multiple offices or take meetings in between client visits.
Prior to COVID-19, Villa Maria Catholic Homes (VMCH), had already recognised that video conferencing could make internal meetings more efficient and help keep employees connected with their peers:
In an industry known for low levels of technology literacy, it is a phenomenal feat to have so many care workers, case managers, team leaders and support staff coordinating work with one another remotely.
Over the past 3 months, we have provided training and resources to more than 300 employees of aged care providers, supporting them to deliver technology-based services alongside traditional aged care services. In these sessions, we focus on building the skills required to discuss technology with clients and introduce a suite of digital tools that can be provided through Home Care Packages and the Commonwealth Home Support Programme (CHSP).
This is knowledge that has relevance in a post-COVID world and will continue to drive efficiencies and better outcomes for older Australians. As one team leader in Western Australia told me, “…our service coordinators have broadened their thinking. We’ve discovered so many products that will benefit our clients that we should have known about already”.
Flexible funding provisions have empowered providers to respond to COVID-19 with technology
In March, the Department of Health announced that it would extend flexible funding provisions for CHSP service providers. Providers can now reallocate up to 100% of funds between services and across Aged Care Planning Regions, enabling them to be more responsive to the needs of older people.
Many providers have used this additional flexibility to put in place technology-alternatives to services impacted by COVID-19. Uniting AgeWell, a provider of community care in Victoria and Tasmania, has had to modify traditional centre-based respite services across 7 locations to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19. They used the additional flexibility within the CHSP to purchase smart home technology and offer ‘virtual respite’ to support older people and their carers. Other providers have had to suspend group social activities and one-on-one social support services. As an alternative, they have purchased tablets, smart-phones and internet subscriptions, and are now facilitating group video calls to keep clients connected during COVID-19.
The additional flexibility has improved the responsiveness of care providers throughout COVID-19, and enabled them to use technology to support wellness and reablement. Ongoing flexibility will ensure providers remain responsive, and do not need to wind-back technology-enabled services as restrictions ease. In a positive sign, flexible funding provisions have now been extended to include funding allocated to providers in 2020-21.
Coronavirus has been a circuit-breaker. We now need to make the choice to snap-forward, not snap back
It is an inconvenient truth that aged care in its prior state was not going to scale to meet increases in demand. Stewart Brown’s most recent Aged Care Financial Performance Survey showed that 56% of aged care homes are operating at a loss. In April, the government’s Home Care Package Program Data Report revealed that 104,473 people are still waiting to receive a Home Care Package at the level they had been approved .
We also know that despite the Productivity Commission stating that we need to triple Australia’s aged care workforce over the next three decades, our sector faces workforce shortages with many advertised positions remaining vacant. We cannot afford to revert to the way we delivered care before COVID-19. Fortunately, we don’t have to.
We will emerge from this disruption with the highest level of technology utilisation in aged care ever. The crisis has driven our workforce to use technology in every aspect of their job. Moving forward, consumers will continue to seek out digital services that can keep them safe, well and connected. Most importantly, we have proven how quickly we can adapt when we are relentlessly focussed on one goal. We can now decide to use these changes to snap-forward, and establish the Next Normal in aged care services.
 Stewart Brown, December 2019 Aged Care Financial Performance Survey: Aged Care Sector Report, available at https://www.stewartbrown.com.au/images/documents/StewartBrown—Aged-Care-Financial-Performance-Survey-Sector-Report-December-2019.pdf
 Department of Health, 2nd Quarter 2019-20 Home Care Packages Program Data Report, available at https://www.gen-agedcaredata.gov.au/www_aihwgen/media/Home_care_report/HCP-Data-Report-2019%e2%80%9320-2nd-Qtr.pdf
 Aged Care Workforce Taskforce, A Matter of Care: Australia’s Aged Care Workforce Strategy available at https://www.health.gov.au/resources/publications/a-matter-of-care-australias-aged-care-workforce-strategy