Comment: The care sector is hard to get right '“ but we must

Retail, manufacturing, leisure '“ every sector makes its own contribution to Scotland's overall economy.

Margins are narrow and you need to be able to build scale to survive, says Prentice. Picture: contributed.
Margins are narrow and you need to be able to build scale to survive, says Prentice. Picture: contributed.

Residential care for our older people, however, is a sector whose role is vital not just to the economy but to society, so the health of Scotland’s care businesses is extremely important.

Unfortunately, creating a thriving ­business in the care sector is challenging. My employer, Silverline Care, operates six homes in Scotland and two in Yorkshire. Our business model is to buy residential care homes that have gone into administration – something that happens all too often – and turn them first and foremost into high-quality facilities that also ­happen to be successful businesses.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Because a care home needs high occupancy to work as a business, before we buy a property, we must get under the skin of why they have gone into administration and what needs to be done to remedy that issue. This usually involves significant investment on our part in the capital ­infrastructure of the home, to ensure it provides the high-quality environment that our residents deserve.

Springhill care home in Kilmarnock, for example, had been neglected through lack of investment, leading to decreasing occupancy because the local authority was choosing not to place people there. After buying Springhill, we invested heavily in restoring the building to its former glory, but providing a great care environment is not just about physical improvements. Where a home has been in administration, employees are often demoralised. However, with the right leadership and support, you can restore morale and unleash their potential. In my experience, when staff feel listened to, they are full of great ideas.

Because happy employees provide ­better care, I believe that developing ­people is vital to a successful care business. After many years as a nurse and then a care home manager with Silverline, I was recently promoted to regional operations manager for Scotland. It has allowed another employee to be promoted internally into my old role. It also shows to the wider team that there are career development opportunities in the company.

We are now supporting any member of our team who is interested through a new Open University qualification in nursing – there’s currently a shortage of nurses across Scotland, so we want to grow and develop our own. We’ve had a lot of interest so far in this opportunity. Earlier this year we took the decision to relocate our support office from London to Glasgow, bringing finance, HR, compliance and technology closer to most of our homes to provide hands-on support.

Although we’ve succeeded in creating a successful care business, there are things that could be done to make that goal easier to achieve. For example, homes offering a high-quality service could be rewarded, in terms of the rates that are paid to them by local authorities. If we don’t want our elderly languishing in hospitals, encouraging care providers to strive for excellence is essential.

A recent influx of additional legislation for residential care has required extra training and support for staff, and even additional employees in some circumstances. Providers receive no added funding from local authorities to cover this added work. As a result, many smaller operators are being squeezed out. Margins are narrow in the care sector and you need to be able to build scale to survive.

There’s also a lack of long-term vision. If local authorities and health boards were prepared to pay a bit more for higher quality care, this would save money in the long run in a reduction in the provision of acute healthcare. It would also provide people with a far better quality of life than in a hospital. Ensuring that the provision of high-quality residential care can work as a business model is vital – and not just because our ageing population deserves it, but because our society depends on it.

May Prentice, regional operations manager for Scotland, Silverline Care