Thought leadership

The digital future of social care

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digital social care

On the 18th May 2022, PPP’s social care network came together for an evidence session entitled A Care System for the Future: Digital Opportunities and the Arrival of Caretech. In this session, participants discussed the benefits of digitisation for integration, digital tools for managing care, and technology to enhance quality of life. 

The opportunity for digital and data driven approaches to creating better patient pathways for social care has never been greater. Population engagement in digital technologies is at an all-time high, making this a unique opportunity, to integrate service design and improve the experience of those in the social care system.  

The impact of Covid-19 

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, many aspects of life have moved online, and we have become increasingly dependent on digital systems. One network member described how “everyone was slightly too comfortable with operating on paper-based systems with forms for absolutely everything, when there was no national picture for what was happening in social care.”

The pandemic has driven forward the digitisation of social care, which has the potential to be benefit  staff and users alike. 

“Right now, I think we are seeing enough alignment between local authorities and the NHS and providers, to have some hope that we will see a significant mass adoption of basic infrastructure across health and social care for individuals to at least be known to the system.” 

“Integrated care systems will have a significant role in shaping the landscape of digital going forward.”

Digitisation and integration 

Network members explored how fully integrated organisations will benefit most from the use of technology. It was emphasised that “telecare paid for by social services that summons assistance to someone who has fallen often benefits the NHS by avoiding or shortening a hospital stay”.  

Other digital technologies can contribute to better health, “sensing outputs can be linked to appropriate messages, or to encourage  people into healthier lifestyles, or at least remind them to take their medications and exercise appropriately”. 

Proper digital communication between hospitals, local surgeries and care homes will aid integration, which is essential to proper care. One participant emphasised that “there is a lot of information in social care that could help healthcare provide a better, more efficient service to individuals that float between the two systems”.  

It was recommended that “there should be a standard that means people who are moving from a hospital into a care home don’t need to explain to everyone they come into contact with who they are, what type of care they need, and what their frailties are – there is a system for that now called ‘about me’”. The value of technology is that it is able to bridge gaps and smoothen transitions when there are transfers of care. 

Integrated care systems (ICS) “will have a significant role in shaping the landscape of digital going forward,” said one network member. The main platform for coordinating health and care plans across the UK is an infrastructure called the shared care record.

The shared care records are being implemented in patches that are broadly aligned with ICSs; providers may have to deal with a plethora of ICSs which all behave differently in the way they manage their information, introducing unnecessary complexity. 

 It was suggested in the session that “the social care systems used by care providers are a better environment for data to flow with the individual than what the NHS has created for it, for information and care coordination.” 

Digital and health 

Secondly, increased use of digital communication for users of social care has and will continue to improve health and wellbeing more generally. One participant expressed that they “recently surveyed a sample of 11,000 service users, who confirmed that their overriding concern is loneliness, one of the main causes of depression and anxiety, as well as being a major driver of acceleration of the ageing process.”

Digital communication can be a vital tool to reduce loneliness and increase support, by virtually connecting those living in care to their loved ones. 

A member of the lived experience panel shared their positive experience of digital communication, saying that “during covid, technology was an absolute lifeline for clients who had autism and other disabilities, who didn’t understand why they couldn’t see families, or for those that were deaf. When zoom came in, they had that face-to-face contact.”

However, there is a lower level of digital inclusion in care homes, with “many being unable or scared to use digital tech. This lack of online skills prevents people in care from being able to access services, as well as reinforcing loneliness”.  

For users of social care services to benefit from digital communication, they must not only be provided devices if required, but empowered and supported to use these devices to communicate with friends and family.  

“Getting used to technology in care has been  really difficult, but at the same time it has freed up so much time to do other things.”

How digital supports the workforce

Network members emphasised that digital technology has the potential to better support the social care workforce, and improve the quality of care provided. One network member described that “technology can enrich working lives by cutting out the tedious monitoring, checking, and recording, enabling staff and volunteers to focus on caring”.   

Another network member added “I think we all recognise its potency and ability to assist – although I don’t think it brings huge efficiencies in terms of staff time because most of it is assistive. I think what it does do is enhances the quality of the interaction of staff with residents.” 

Concern was expressed that there is an unwillingness to embrace digital technologies by social care and NHS staff. One network member shared that in their experience “some carers are not confident using IT, and do not want to receive training.” However, another network member challenged this, and said that current online systems are badly designed and poorly implemented which make them difficult for staff to use.  

They described that “care workers walk in to work, and are logging on to systems that are a lot harder to use than Facebook. It’s not that technology works or doesn’t work; the reality is that technology can be well designed and can be implemented in context in a way that works for people.”. 

A network member added that “the reality is that it is not a widespread case that care workers don’t like technology, we have care workers in their seventies who want to adopt technology, and want to have it explained to them. Once they understand the technology works to help them; they feel empowered” 

Alongside this, it must be made sure that social care staff are adequately supported to learn to use relevant devices and systems, and raise public awareness of its benefits. One network member shared that in their experience “when [they] showed carers what the technology can do in focus groups, enthusiasm rose from 5 per cent to 69 per cent”.  

A member of the lived experience panel shared that “getting used to technology in care has been  really difficult, but at the same time it has freed up so much time to do other things.”

“Technology will increasingly offer more scope for people to care for themselves in their own homes.”

Digital improvements and  quality of life 

Digital technology, if implemented correctly and thoughtfully, has the potential to greatly improve the quality of life for people in social care.

One network member shared with the group, “For me, digital technology is a life enhancer. It helps me to get in and out of bed, and with other aspects of daily living where it reduces the amount of physical effort required of me and those who support me. It keeps check on various parts of my body which are prone to go wrong, and enables me to get around during the day.”

Assistive technology has the potential to provide dignity and independence where it is required for those in social care, given that “technology will increasingly offer more scope for people to care for themselves in their own homes.”

One network member shared that “[they were] in a care home yesterday where there were three people who were all younger. They were in electric move-around wheelchairs, and all felt they were capable of living independently, but there was nowhere appropriate for them to go,” in terms of a living space equipped with the proper technologies to support them to live. 

 Another network member added that “for younger people who need to live with support, technology can give them control without relying on a member of staff – for some young people it can be embarrassing to need constant support from carers.” 

The same network member added that this kind of care can be cheaper than from social care staff. One participant found that in her experience, “paying for technology in supported living was cheaper than paying for residential.” 

However, several members of the network expressed that in most cases, the digitisation of social care and the introduction of caretech should not take away from the personal and relationship-based care which can be so important to people in receipt of social care.  

Digital improvements are there to support, not to replace, relationship-based care from trained carers. One member said “I do not want to see people being replaced by technology, sometimes the only person a client sees in a day is their carer”. 

The importance of co-production 

It was emphasised several times that technology designed for social care users should be co-produced with those it is designed for. Firstly, it means that the technology being designed  is of value to those it is for, and will be used to improve quality of life. Secondly, if we involve the consumer voice from the start, this will this reduce the risk of over engineering and more expensive solutions in social care.  

One network member shared that “technology introduction needs to be collaborative – the relationship between technology providers and care providers needs to be very close knit.” This can help ensure  that the right technologies can be implemented for the benefit of care providers and users. 

It may be that through this process of co-production, we find that the technologies most beneficial for system users already exist. Several network members suggested that voice activated speakers may be of benefit to many in receipt of social care. 

A social care app 

The possibility of a social care app was also discussed by the network. Given the success of the NHS app since the start of the pandemic, some network members proposed that a centralised social care app may be used to access social care services.

However, it was highlighted that a social care app may not be as easy to design, as much of social care is delivered by councils, and social care looks different between different providers. Therefore, it would not be quite as easy to organise as it would be via the NHS. 

Dignity and a better quality of life

Digital tools and systems in social care have the potential to improve the quality of care provided to users, as well as the working conditions for those employed in the sector.  

Despite concerns, one network member insisted that “it is not true that technology in social care will face higher barriers than in other sectors,” provided that the technologies offered are designed and implemented correctly.

Good technologies will be simple to learn to use. They should save on time, money and energy and must be co-designed with those they are created for in order to fulfil current needs. Overall, they must provide dignity, and a better quality of life for those who use them. 

This discussion is to be continued in the next roundtable on the topic, on the 22nd June 2020. For more information, or to be involved, please contact Mary Brown.