My 91-year-old mother was deeply unhappy at the geriatric hospital in which she found herself after breaking her ankle. But we knew little of the alternatives. Official inspection ratings offer impersonal information. So how were we, her children, supposed to gauge the quality of other establishments offering care?
Our saviour turned out to be Alison – my mother’s hairdresser. As a specialist in older, housebound clients, she had continued to do her customers’ hair as they moved to various hospitals or care homes.
Alison gave us the names of three places nearby that our mother might prefer, and we arranged her transfer within 36 hours. It was a move which transformed the quality of her last few months of life.
Unlike formal inspectors, Alison was an unthreatening, secret observer of each of the institutions she visited. She proved to be a knowledgeable and reliable guide. Without her, my mother’s life could have ended very differently.
The trouble is, not every family is lucky enough to know an Alison.
In the UK, people are expected to make their own choices about their own care in the final months and years of life. But how can people become well informed about different care providers, especially when a crisis forces decisions to be made at short notice? Alison revealed the importance of informal contacts and social networks in allowing individuals and families to make good choices.
How could her role be made available to all families seeking similar information? Care settings for those nearing the end of life are, in terms of inspection, a bit like restaurants. Technical medical and nursing procedures, like a restaurant’s kitchen, need inspecting by technical inspectors. But most of the care provided at the end of a person’s life is not of the technical kind. It involves hard to measure factors like respect, a sense of belonging, and relationships with staff. It is in many ways like assessing a restaurant’s ambience. In the hospitality trade, this is something best considered by mystery customers who collectively author good food guides, or by informal online ratings like on TripAdvisor.
Such assessments rightly abandon the myth of objectivity embedded in formal inspections. Potential consumers perusing TripAdvisor ratings understand them as subjective experiences to be taken on balance.
So collective, honestly subjective, online ratings should be available for families to make informed choices about different care settings. For well-being over the course of life, we need to be able to read about customer experiences of health and care agencies just as much as we need to read about experiences of restaurants, hotels and holidays.
A great example of what is needed is carehome.co.uk, which gathers and publishes reviews of care homes, along with other information provided by the home. Many of the care homes listed, however, have no reviews. Care at home is reviewed by the online database homecare.co.uk, although the vast majority of organisations that look after people in their own homes have no reviews.
Those two websites are funded by industry subscriptions. Proposed reviews are authenticated and vetted before publication, and reviewers are advised not to publish complaints but send them direct to the agency. These safeguards should eradicate vexatious reviews, although they may also present an unrealistically positive overall view of user experience. The sites are, however, a step in the right direction.
Of course, TripAdvisor-style ratings for the “last journey” tend to come not from the actual service-user or patient. Most reviews are from family and friends, which could be an issue. Complex family dynamics – such as guilt at putting parents into care, or anxiety that care costs are eating up the inheritance – can mean families are rarely the baggage-free observers that Alison was.
Reviewing the situation
Of more concern is that even the most loving, attentive and observant family member may know little about the person’s experiences at the hands of their paid carers. This might only be achieved by CCTV cameras, but do we really want care homes, hospital wards and (in the case of home care) even the person’s own home to become zones of electronic surveillance?
No way of monitoring or collecting information will be perfect. And we should acknowledge that the trajectory of frail elderly dying is always uncertain. No one can predict how they will feel as bodies and minds fail, so all choices will entail a degree of guesswork.
Rigorous formal inspection – and public enquiries when things go dramatically wrong – are of course essential. But if people nearing the end of life (or their families) are to adopt the prescribed role of informed consumer, comprehensive collations of user experiences are vital.
End of life care is more important than booking a restaurant or the next holiday – so information needs to be just as good, or better.