Timely, Appropriate Referrals and Responding to Deterioration in Community and Residential Care


Published: 30 June 2020

Clients have the right to receive the right care, in the right place, at the right time.

All care recipients are subject to changes in their condition, whether they be physical, emotional, cognitive or functional. Part of adequate care provision is being able to promptly detect these changes, intervene appropriately and refer the client to a specialist service if deemed necessary (ACQSC 2019).

Timely, appropriate referrals and responding to deterioration are components of the Aged Care Quality Standards Standard 3: Personal Care and Clinical Care and Standard 4: Services and Supports for Daily Living.

Timely Referrals

If a provider finds that they are unable to meet a client’s needs, goals and preferences appropriately, they are expected to consult with the client and promptly refer them to another provider, organisation or individual who is able to fulfil these needs (ACQSC 2019).

Providers should deliver care that is timely, culturally safe and in an appropriate setting. Furthermore, if the client is experiencing physical, psychological or spiritual distress, prompt interventions should be made to reduce their suffering and ensure their dignity at the end of their life (ACQSC 2019).

Under the Quality of Care Principles 2014, providers should be able to meet the needs of a diverse range of consumers. Establishing a collaborative network of providers can assist with this by making it easier to refer clients to the appropriate party (ACQSC 2019).

Specialist Services

Clients may need to be referred to specialist services throughout the course of their care. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Allied health;
  • Dental services;
  • Hearing services;
  • Medical services;
  • Psychiatric services; and
  • Specialised therapy services.

(ACQSC 2019)

If a client requires one of these specialist services, the provider is expected to refer them in a timely manner (ACQSC 2019).

hearing specialist inserting hearing aid into older woman's ear
Clients may need to be referred to specialist services throughout the course of their care.

Avoidable Hospital Referrals

Knowing when to refer is just as important as knowing when not to refer.

Clients receiving care services, particularly those in residential aged care, often require acute medical services. About 25% of people in residential aged care are admitted to hospital every year, largely due to a high prevalence of chronic disease and multiple comorbidities (VIC DoH 2016).

However, hospital admission can place these people at significant risk of complications such as hospital-acquired infections, falls, reduced mobility and disorientation (VIC DoH 2016; RACGP 2019).

Despite this, it is estimated that between 13 and 67% of aged care resident hospital admissions are avoidable. Some are not necessary at all (VIC DoH 2016; RACGP 2019).

A 2019 joint report from the NSW Aged Care Roundtable found that aged care staff had witnessed avoidable emergency admissions for a range of reasons, including:

  • Falls;
  • Palliative care;
  • Behaviour management;
  • Catheterisation or re-catheterisation;
  • Simple wound care;
  • Pain relief;
  • Urinary tract infections;
  • Dehydration or poor nutrition;
  • Upper respiratory tract infections;
  • Depression;
  • Lack of medication at the facility; and
  • Elder abuse (including attacks from other residents).

Moreover, the report revealed exceptionally high rates (in some cases over 90%) of delayed patient discharge due to factors such as transport logistics, insufficient staff and lack of staff knowledge (NSW Aged Care Roundtable 2019).

older man in hospital bed
It is estimated that between 13 and 67% of aged care resident hospital admissions are avoidable. Some are not necessary at all.

Why is this occurring despite the risks that hospitalisation poses to these clients?

According to the report, residential aged care facilities are suffering from an inability to provide the level and quality of care required by their clients (NSW Aged Care Roundtable 2019).

Furthermore, residents themselves are requesting unnecessary hospital admission because they do not have confidence in their provider’s ability to appropriately respond to deterioration (NSW Aged Care Roundtable 2019).

In order to reduce the number of avoidable hospitalisations, the report made the following recommendations to providers:

  • Improve staffing levels, skills mix and training;
  • Improve access to specialist services; and
  • Improve medication management.

(NSW Aged Care Roundtable 2019)

While avoidable hospitalisations do occur, there are times when referrals to hospital will be necessary. Always consider what is best for your patient above all else, and follow your organisation’s relevant policies.

Responding to Deterioration

Appropriately recognising and responding to deterioration is essential to ensure the client receives the care they require, in the right setting.

It is important to note that deterioration can occur rapidly or over a prolonged period. While it may indicate a medical emergency that requires immediate intervention, some deterioration is caused by untreatable factors such as disease progression. Distinguishing between the two is crucial in ensuring the client receives the correct care and is referred to the right place, if necessary (ELDAC 2020)

As care staff often spend a significant amount of time with clients (sometimes interacting with them daily), they may notice signs of deterioration. Providers should encourage care staff to report deterioration if:

  • The client’s typical level of activity or engagement changes or they are reluctant to get out of bed;
  • The client requires extra help due to physical or mental health concerns;
  • The client loses weight or stays underweight;
  • The client has poor general health that is worsening or not improving; or
  • The client’s symptoms are persisting even after appropriate management.

(palliAGED 2020a)

tired older man lying in bed
Being reluctant to get out of bed may indicate deterioration.

How to Manage Deterioration

Depending on the cause and type of deterioration, staff may need to:

  • Seek immediate medical intervention and follow the appropriate assessment required for the specific situation;
  • Review the client’s care goals together with the client, their family and healthcare team;
  • Commence a palliative care plan or pathway in consultation with the person, family and healthcare team;
  • Ensure care is being given in accordance with the client’s wishes;
  • Manage symptoms;
  • Withdraw treatments, activities or medications that are no longer appropriate or beneficial; and
  • Provide counselling to the client, their loved ones and staff.

(palliAGED 2020b)

Responding to Specific Situations

The following is a list of Ausmed resources that may apply to specific deterioration scenarios:


Clients expect to receive the right care, in the right place, at the right time. This means providers are responsible for identifying deterioration or a change of needs and promptly referring the client to the appropriate party.

Providers must also ensure they understand when hospital admission is and is not appropriate in order to minimise unnecessary distress and harm to the client. This may require additional staff training and education.

Additional Resources


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