Developing the OPAN workforce: Exploring the skills, attributes, knowledge, professional development, and training requirements for effective aged care advocacy
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This research project was conducted by Curtin University and commissioned by the Older Persons Advocacy Network (OPAN) to explore professional development opportunities for aged care advocates, as well as the skills, competencies and training required to work effectively in the role.
Skills The findings of this research project indicate that advocates require a broad range of skills to work effectively in their role. Interpersonal communication skills were perceived by survey participants as critical in enabling aged care advocacy. Some of the skills originally identified in the scoping review of the literature were re-classified as values, attitudes, and personality traits.
Values and attitudes Throughout the research process, the importance of values, attitudes, and personality traits in supporting effective advocacy emerged. Focus groups participants expressed how the values and attitudes of an advocate were more important than the skills and knowledge they brought to the role. Many of the skills identified early in the project were later re-classified as values, attitudes, and personality traits. In the online survey, these were ranked higher in importance than many of the skills identified as necessary for effective advocacy. Findings from the survey highlighted that respondents perceived professional integrity to be the most important value for an aged care advocate to possess.
Knowledge Advocates require an extensive understanding of both theoretical and contextual advocacy knowledge to fulfil their role, and this knowledge is likely to change over time as systems, policies, and legislation continue to evolve. Participants considered a nuanced understanding of the unique facets of the advocacy role, including differences between advocacy and other forms of practice (e.g. mediation, case management, counselling etc.), to be the most important knowledge requirement of advocates. It is also important that advocates have access to the most current and accurate knowledge relevant to their areas of practice as providing accurate information is among the key duties of an advocate.
Competencies The scoping literature review identified 37 advocacy competencies necessary for client or systemic advocacy, or both. A further 20 competencies were identified via the focus groups and online survey. The findings of this research project in relation to advocacy competencies suggest that advocacy competencies are broad and multi-faceted, and advocates may find it helpful to refer to a set of overarching competencies defining and exploring their role. Such competencies may provide further clarity regarding the scope of the advocacy role, as well as aid human resources processes surrounding future recruitment, training, and professional development needs.
Professional development and training Overall, advocates expressed an interest in professional development. While some participants reported accessing professional development and training opportunities, others did not. Although there are conferences that advocates can attend for related fields such as aged care or disability, there are currently no specific conferences focussed solely on advocacy. While the scoping review identified 13 different training programs, none of these programs were specifically designed to target the training needs of advocates working with older people. This stands in contrast to the finding of the survey which identified that the majority of advocates agreed that training is necessary for working in an advocacy role, indicating they would be interested in undertaking an advocacy training program. Overall, the findings from all three phases of this project indicate a lack of professional development opportunities, including training, specifically aimed at enhancing the skills and knowledge of aged care advocates.
Advocacy workforce The findings of this project suggest a lack of cultural diversity in the current aged care advocacy workforce which may have implications for the special needs group that advocates work with. Many advocates have a background in social work, which appears to provide advocates with skills and knowledge relevant for working in the advocacy sector. Despite participants reporting high levels of job satisfaction, many participants had worked in their role for two years or less, with evidence of declining staff numbers beyond this time.
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