Sunday 23 October 2016

Home is where the health is

Cora Murphy and Niamh Wallace of The Care Team tell Sean Gallagher why so many patients long to go home

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

Sean Gallagher with Cora Murphy from The Care Team. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Cora Murphy from The Care Team. Photo: David Conachy

Improved living conditions and advances in medicine mean we now see many more birthdays than our ancestors could ever have imagined.

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However, as we grow older, we develop ailments and disabilities that require increased health care from a system that is already struggling to cope with existing demand.

With pressure mounting, the focus is now on providing increased amounts of home-based health care services - there's a global trend that seeks to shift focus from the acute hospital sector to supporting patients in their own homes and communities. Last week, I went to meet one company that is leading the way in the provision of home health care in Ireland.

Set up in 2012 by nurses Cora Murphy and Niamh Wallace, The Care Team is located in Blackrock, Co Dublin, employs 140 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €3m.

"We provide the full range of professional service that you would expect to receive in a hospital, except we provide them in the comfort and privacy of a client's own home," says Cora. "Our staff includes nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech and language therapists, nutritionists and healthcare assistants."

Focused initially on the Dublin region, they were among a number of companies that won an HSE tender to provide home health care to over-65s nationwide - something that will see them more than double in size over the next two years.

"It's great news and a great endorsement for the company," says Niamh. "We've just taken on a full-time recruiter to help and we'll also be partnering with companies My Home Care and Home Assist Healthcare to help in delivering the service."

Forty per cent of clients are over 65, while 60pc are aged between 18 and 65. Many require a high level of care and specialised services as a result of a long-term disability or chronic illness.

Referrals come mainly from HSE hospitals, social workers and public health nurses as well as from groups such as the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association, Acquired Brain Injury Ireland, the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Ireland and the Irish Wheelchair Association.

"Many of our clients are too young to be in a nursing home and respond better under a nurse-led home care service," says Cora.

She and Niamh are qualified nurses. Cora grew up near Cong, Co Mayo, where her father owned a local garage and her mother ran her own business making curtains and blinds.

"We also had a farm, so like most children who grow up on a farm I started working as soon as I could walk," says Cora.

During her teenage years, she became a big fan of hospital-based TV drama ER, something she attributes to her decision to pursue a career in nursing.

Once qualified, she worked in a number of places including a leading burns and plastic surgery hospital in the UK and University Hospital Galway. She was later approached by cosmetic surgery specialists, the Hospital Group, and joined them as lead nurse across their four Irish clinics. When the market for cosmetic surgery went into decline, Cora moved to work in community nursing.

Niamh spent her early years in Malawi, in south-east Africa, where her mother was a nurse and her father worked in agriculture. After the family moved back to Dublin she decided to train in nursing in St Vincent's Hospital, where she later specialised in vascular surgery, endocrinology and general medical. It was while working for a year in Australia that she was introduced to the home health care sector.

"In Australia, I saw that you didn't need to be elderly to receive health care in the home - it was available to everyone, irrespective of age," says Niamh.

Back home, she completed her midwifery studies, took up a sales role with a leading pharmaceutical firm and went on to help set up a new home care company for someone else. It was then that she met Cora, after hiring her for a nursing role.

"We just clicked," says Cora, "and while discussing the merits of the home health care model and how this would give patients better outcomes in their recovery and rehabilitation we decided to join forces. In 2012, The Care Team was born."

In the beginning there was just the two of them and one carer. Their plan was to stay small and only supply services to patients in their local area in south Dublin. However, this was to change six months later when they were asked to provide services for a highly-dependent patient who had been in hospital for more than eight months.

"We were told the patient was in the terminal stages of their illness and that they wished to die at home," says Cora. "Having assessed the patient's needs, we put in place an intensive home care package complete with nurses, physiotherapists and care assistants.

"After only a few weeks he started to improve, gained weight, became more alert and his press-ure sores healed."

The patient went on to live in his own home for a further two years. Impressed with the results, the HSE offered them a contract to provide intensive care services on their behalf, and overnight the demand for their services increased. Today, 70pc of their patient packages are funded through the HSE.

However, the early days of the business were challenging as the pair struggled to raise capital. As a service-based business, the banks weren't interested, and because they were neither exporting nor manufacturing products there was little by way of grants, so they survived on savings and the help of our families and friends.

"The family ate porridge for the first few months," says Niamh with a laugh. "But when you've given up your job, failure just isn't an option."

The pair are delighted with how the business is doing. For them, though, their greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that their clients are receiving the highest standard of care in their own homes, away from exposure to hospital bugs and infections and surrounded by family and friends.

So what's next?

"We're currently focused on expanding our services nationwide through a combination of expanding our own teams, partnering with other service providers, acquiring others and possibly franchising our business model," says Cora.

"We are also planning to enter the e-health and tele-health markets," adds Niamh. "With the use of the latest in sensor technologies, we will soon be able to remotely monitor patients in their own homes, check their heart rate and blood pressure and even detect if they have taken their prescribed medications. It's all very exciting."

Cora and Niamh are not only successful business women, they are highly-trained nurses. It is this very combination that makes them uniquely equipped to provide the best outcomes for patients in their homes.

As I wish them well, I feel a great sense of comfort knowing that should I or someone dear to me ever become ill and require home health care, there are professionals like The Care Team in place to provide it.

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