Looking for a hotel, holiday accommodation, a property to rent? Well, it couldn’t be easier these days to get the right information to be able to make an informed choice. Websites are swamped with information, all vying for customer attention. For people looking for a care home, it is not quite so easy.

The important question of what a care home is going to cost comes to mind. It is often very difficult for potential residents to discover what the cost may be before making a decision on which care home they would like to choose. Indeed, only a couple of years ago the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) dipped their toes in this particular pond to discover that 10% of care homes their mystery shoppers visited were not able to provide information on fee levels and 20% held no breakdown of the cost of individual services within the home. In a sense this can be likened to a hotel that is not able to state what their costs for a room, meals or laundry may be.

To be fair though, price transparency in care homes has improved over the years between 2004 and 2011 from 72% to 79% and has probably improved a little more since then. Nevertheless, we are reminded that both OFT and CQC, the care regulator, are adamant that residents should know ‘how much they are expected to pay, when and how’ and ‘what the care home will provide for the fee paid’. Let’s say that it has improved to 80%, so that means about a fifth of care homes may still be non compliant against this standard.

The question of adequate transparency also applies to care home contracts (or statement of terms and conditions if the resident is state funded). The OFT were not impressed when they got their feet wet again and found that about 18% of care homes did not have a contract with their residents. Again, CQC makes it very clear that residents must have this transparency before making a decision to move in, be allowed adequate time to make a decision and be clear about what additional services would attract separate payments. This last comment is particularly important for people who receive NHS continuing healthcare (which is free) but seek additional services tailored to their own requirements such as alcoholic drinks, hairdressing and so on.  It is also necessary for self funders to be advised of their potential future eligibility for state funding if and when their financial circumstances dictate. Of course this aspect is now even more topical with the imminent introduction of the Dilnot recommendations – it would be a good move for care homes to anticipate any thrust by the OFT and CQC to ensure that residents are adequately advised about this in advance.

There is no doubt that a good and effective complaints process can be a positive thing in terms of transparency, customer service, customer satisfaction as well as mere compliance. If it is sold to residents as a way of learning from small mistakes so they don’t get any bigger and residents see this then all the better. Feedback straight to the resident raises confidence and feedback to staff shows trust and raises their morale and self confidence. This is all pretty obvious stuff but it is surprising to see that a good proportion of care homes have not nailed down their complaints process when, actually, there is no excuse for a care home to fail this standard.

Finally, CQC inspection reports. Even if they are not as good as one would hope, they must still be available to prospective residents and available to existing residents after each inspection. This is yet another pond the OFT have put their toe in and found that in 2011, 84% of care homes provide reports to new residents and 92% to residents following each subsequent inspection.

In the age of transparency, care homes are really encouraged to sell themselves to the community, prospective residents (especially private clients), commissioners and regulators. The Statement of Purpose for a care home, resident contract, service user guide, website and complaints procedure all contribute to transparency and with such openness care homes can only improve their position in the sector.

Spring is just around the corner. This may a good point to review all of this and steady the boat towards the implementation of Dilnot and health and social care integration, and to rise to the challenges of the ever changing market place together with the inevitable tougher stance on regulation.

Julie Hopkins

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