Celebrating CareMalta Group’s 30th anniversary

As CareMalta Group celebrates its 30th anniversary, CEO James Sciriha explains to Tiana Formosa how the group plans to move forward and continue enhancing the lives of its residents

CareMalta CEO James Sciriha
CareMalta CEO James Sciriha

So firstly, congratulations on reaching this honourable milestone of 30 years of CareMalta Group. Successfully leading a group of this size, what do you think makes CareGroup Malta stand out from other nursing and residential care groups and/or companies that aid and care for both the elderly and those with a disability (as supported through HILA Homes)?

Firstly, I think the experience that CareMalta has - it’s been 30 years now, gives us an edge over other homes that have either opened recently or in these past few years. When it comes to the elderly sector, it has evolved and developed quite a lot so there were changes and through the years we managed to learn and re-learn, so that gives us an edge also going forward in the way we think about the elderly sector.

The size of CareMalta and given that we operate nine elderly facilities and three HILA Homes, soon with the opening of our 13th home, also through HILA, gives us the edge in terms of economies of scale and staffing. For example, if a crisis occurs, we can bank on other homes, resources etc and that gives us an advantage – being that we’re part of a much bigger group - Vassallo Group. We can bank on the construction arm, we can bank on the catering arm and we have the education arm as well so whenever we need something, we just raise our hands and practically, we have everything.

At CareMalta, we focus a lot on social activities which I believe not many are currently focusing on and we strongly practice active aging. We’re close to our residents and we encourage them to participate. Additionally, some events that we organise come from the residents - many times they’re the ones who propose and come up with initiatives. The fact that we have an activity coordinator or facilitator and resident committee in each home, helps us organise and listen to our residents. We also greatly focus on the involvement of families. We deeply value their opinion and I believe that we are a company that is quite close to our residents, their relatives and our staff.

CareMalta was incepted on a social aspect. Back then, 30 years ago, CareMalta could have been a private hospital or a school. They chose the least feasible business model, so it was literally on a social aspect. CareMalta is run according to our values; quality, which is non-negotiable. We focus a lot on safety and we preach and practice integrity, development, our residents’ dignity and overall well-being. Another aspect is that the resident is at the centre of everything we do and I believe that that, is also something that makes CareMalta stand out - what makes us unique.

In the 30 years that CareMalta Group has been operating, what challenges and/or obstacles were faced and how were you able to successfully overcome them both as a company and as the CEO?

I think throughout these 30 years, the biggest challenge was probably the evolving healthcare sector, which brought a lot of challenges. Thirty years ago, we used to call them residential homes and nowadays we call them nursing homes. We don’t call them nursing homes because it’s a nicer word or phrase, but because the needs are much more focused towards nursing, rather than residential or just being in a hotel, so that was the biggest challenge during these 30 years and it still is because the sector continues to evolve and change.

We engage experts in the field to help us reinvent the wheel. We don’t stop. We go overseas and observe what other countries are doing, we research and we continue to see how we can develop our services. Currently, our biggest challenge is staff recruitment and rotation - the staff turnover. I believe that the entire country is facing this. We try to encourage our staff to train, plus, we encourage development and as I said before we give a lot of opportunities to our staff. I must say that all of the executive team today came from our facilities. Our COO, Noel Borg was a nurse 25 years ago and the CEO of HILA Janet Silvio was a manager at the Cospicua Home, which proves that we greatly believe in our staff.

I must also say that financial sustainability is a challenge in this sector. The size of CareMalta Group makes it more sustainable. Many people believe that the elderly sector is a money-making sector but the margins are very low. I use to work in an audit firm before, so I’ve seen profit margins of other businesses and sectors and our sector has a very low margin. The costs are always increasing so it makes it even harder. For example, in other sectors, let’s take construction. If a person is sick, you can decide to not replace that person - building a house can wait for tomorrow, but we cannot wait because we need to provide care to the resident, so a person or two on sick leave is a no go for us and we need to replace, so financial sustainability is a challenge.

Personally, I think that the biggest challenge we’ve faced these past few years is the coronavirus pandemic. CareMalta Group was the first company that decided to go into a lockdown. We were criticised for it, but soon after, everyone followed and we didn’t decide to go into a lockdown just for the sake of it, it was scientifically decided because that was the best way to get through it. During that period, we were very close to our staff and residents as well. The lockdown was an extended family for our residents, even though it was very tough as their relatives were away from them and they practically could not see them, only through an online platform. We stayed very close to them and we made ourselves available more than ever and I believe that that is how we managed to overcome it as a team.

Another challenge is safety. We invest a lot of money - hundreds of thousands to safeguard both our residents and staff and as a group, we have our health and safety officer who continuously goes around our facilities training our people in case of incidents, fires, floods etc and how to deal with these circumstances.

Your brand’s characteristics include “Compassion, Engagement, and Professionalism”. How do you feel CareMalta actively practices these in everyday operations?

I must say that these three characteristics or values are part of what we call iCare. CareMalta Group, like any other business nowadays, employs persons from across the world. We have people from a wide range of nationalities, who all speak different languages and with different cultures but we speak one language at CareMalta Group and that is iCare.

It’s a service attitude, in which we train people on how to behave in our homes and facilities. Compassion, practically, is recognising first and foremost that our residents are valued. When you realise or recognise that our residents are vulnerable people and can be dealing with physical or mental/emotional challenges like any other person, you can train your staff to be compassionate. What does it mean to be compassionate? You need to empathise and practically respond to their needs with kindness and understanding. If you understand and be kind, you can respond to their needs.

Engagement is critical in our sector because the staff needs to be engaged for our resident’s mental and emotional well-being. We organise a range of social events and activities and we encourage our residents to participate. Many activities nowadays are being attended by hundreds of residents. For Christmas, we organised a lunch and had 180 residents attend and during a sports day event, we had around 150 residents. So yes, they do participate and the staff help to organise them and get them ready. We also encourage the families and friends to participate whenever they can.

Professionalism first and foremost - we have to respect the resident’s privacy and dignity – that is how we can be professional and maintain very critical confidentiality. We also have our professional codes of conduct and we expect our staff to adhere to the codes of conduct both of CareMalta Group and of Vassallo Group.

We have a system of internal audits which are separate from the external ones in which we can grade our homes and give service awards based on the results they achieve. We distributed these awards in February and all of our homes reached gold or silver quality of service which shows a certain level of quality and professionalism as well. We also ask for feedback from residents, relatives and staff so that we make sure we are meeting their needs and expectations. It’s useless thinking that we are meeting their expectations without even knowing what their expectations are.

In the time you have been CEO, what strengths and weaknesses have you observed and how have you been able to improve and continue to successfully operate to ensure it is a rewarding and beneficial experience for the employees, residents, and families of those in your care?

I’ll start with the weaknesses because they are the easiest to speak about. Unfortunately, on a personal level and in business, the biggest weakness is staff turnover. It doesn’t mean that our staff is our weakness, the staff, is one of our strengths, but staff turnover is a weakness just like in any other business. As I said, we try to overcome it through continuous training and by building a culture of continuous improvement, development and a culture of communication. We also compare our salary structures and try to be ahead of the market rather than just matching the market.

Technology is another weakness as it has advanced rapidly, however, when it comes to this sector, I believe that it’s not just faced by our company but also a nationwide challenge. Being that it’s a service and that there is a human element, we tend to go away from technology. I must say, however, that this new executive team is embracing innovation completely and we are currently working on a fully digitalised system. By the end of this year, we will start implementing full digitalisation in all of our processes. Will that mean that we will reduce the human element? No. Whatever we will automate, we will and whatever can be digitalised, we will digitalise but the human element will remain there for sure. Another weakness is our residents’ satisfaction, which is very subjective and I believe it must be a weakness and it has to remain a weakness because it does keep us on our toes to constantly improve our services. So yes, we do continue to seek and ask for feedback because that is the only way we will know how to improve our services.

In terms of strengths, I must mention our high-quality care and as I said before, care is non-negotiable at CareMalta Group. We believe that if there is anything that can be negotiated when it comes to care, we do not negotiate. There’s a good reputation of care at CareMalta so we expect staff to not tamper with our reputation. So that is definitely our biggest strength. Additionally, the experience that CareMalta obtains is another strength.

Celebrating 30 years with hopefully another 30 to come, what are you most looking forward to for the company’s future?

I look forward to taking CareMalta, which would be the first nursing home, into a fully digitalised and automated system. That is one thing that is quite imminent now that we’re starting to implement it. I also look forward to expanding our services and diversifying even more. Through HILA, we already diversify our services so obviously, we are working even harder to continue diversifying and expanding hopefully to Gozo.

We are greatly working on maintaining the improvement of our staff retention be it through better financial packages, or non-financial packages and by also offering career advancements to our staff and professional development. We also look forward to maybe one day, expanding overseas. 

I personally as James, want CareMalta Group stronger, healthier and bigger. Every CEO left CareMalta stronger and bigger than the previous CEO. However, I want CareMalta Group to continue changing and developing for the better, always mindful of the residents, the relatives and our staff while also keeping in mind and at heart, our values.