The Care Quality Commission's recent 'State of the Nation' report on health and social care services in England reminded us that a lot still needs to be done by the providers and professionals charged with safeguarding our wellbeing when we are ill, injured, vulnerable, frail or otherwise in need of support.
None of this will come as any great surprise. Following on from the scandals of Mid-Staffs, Morecambe Bay, Winterbourne View and others, the public are now largely conditioned to hearing about problems in health and social care services. There arguably remain more good news stories than bad ones, but of course the gravity of bad news travels far further.
Alongside all of these insights, however, came one of the most interesting messages in the report - an invitation to each of us to become 'empowered consumers'. The language alone sits in stark contrast to the traditional idea of people needing care being passive recipients of that service, stripping them of choice, control, and in many cases even a voice.
Initiatives designed to include people in their care aren't new, but the idea that in the eyes of the regulator of care quality people using services are consumers - with all the rights that word suggests - is a significantly enhanced position. The notion of a consumer is a person who can exercise choice when looking for a service, hold a sub-standard service provider to account, and make informed decisions based on the quality of the service they receive.
The empowering part comes from the Care Quality Commission (CQC) themselves, who are now using a new inspection model and rating the services they are responsible for. The new methodology gives consumers a clear indication of the quality of establishments they, or their family, are using or thinking of using, while the ratings system tells the public whether a service is outstanding, good, requires improvement or inadequate.
So, is it realistic that each of us becomes an empowered consumer? For some people, the choice of services available to them isn't the same as the level of choice they have when they are grocery shopping. Specialist services, like for example dementia care, are few and far between in some areas of the UK. CQC address this by suggesting that, "Where there is no or little choice ... ask those care workers and professionals who are there to support you to ensure your interests are represented fairly."
Even more challenging is the idea of holding providers to account, which can be incredibly difficult for many vulnerable people who fear for their own lives, or those of their loved ones, if they blow the whistle on poor care. Likewise, moving to another service if you are dissatisfied with the one you are receiving isn't so simple when it means moving home.
Against this backdrop, becoming empowered consumers is going to be a difficult process, but if we are to achieve the improvements in care that everyone wants to see it is vital that people who use health and social care services are at the heart of driving that improvement. The views of each person accessing services and their family matters, and their experiences can help to ensure the change we all want to see.
I have always maintained that working with people who use services and their families is the ideal standpoint for care providers, but for some professionals this requires a seismic shift in their daily practice to remove the 'them and us' barriers that are still prolific. Feedback and involvement from people who use services and their families can made a huge difference in terms of the way a service runs and ultimately fares when it is rated - it is also likely to be viewed positively by what I hope will be a growing population of empowered consumers.
For the health and social care sectors, the challenge is around becoming more competitive, more open to receiving complaints and making improvements, and far more structured around the individual needing care and their family. A difficult transition for some, but a vital one if our care services are to be safe, caring, effective, responsive and well-led.
I have never supported the passive, submissive model of care that typifies what outdated health and social care practice looks like, and frankly seeing people needing support and their families as empowered consumers is very much overdue. How long it will take for every care provider to catch up with this new way of thinking is anyone's guess, but I would urge providers to embrace it with positivity.
You can find out more about the Care Quality Commission here: http://www.cqc.org.uk/