Taking care of business, tech in care of people
Given the face to face nature of social care, it is easy to forget that like many other sectors it is embracing technology. As the Industrial Strategy Commission commented, “technological innovations … have the potential to increase the productivity and effectiveness of the health and social care system. This in turn creates new markets for new products of those industries that supply the health and social care sector”. However, in doing so it also highlighted the “need to articulate a positive vision for the future of the health and social care system, which makes the most of the potential of new technology, while retaining a focus on people - both the people who use the services, and the professionals who provide it”. While this means the sector needs to become “more receptive to innovation” the report goes on to say that “the opportunities for businesses to prosper by contributing to that innovation are huge”. With such potential for growth, it should not be a surprise the West Midlands Combined Authority’s Strategic Economic Plan talks about doubling the productivity of the life sciences and healthcare sector.
It seems inevitable that advances in technology will become an increasingly important part of making our lives easier in later life, as the Industrial Strategy Commission put it, the potential for “the development of technologies and care systems, to enable more people to live in their own homes for longer is considerable”. Consequently, developing, manufacturing and operating such equipment seems set to become a growing part of the economy.
Working with the grain of how people live their lives can present opportunities. For example, Nottingham Community Housing Association’s SMaRt Messenger is an assistive technology system providing personalised support in the home through TV messaging, reaching those who do not have or cannot use smartphones, laptops, or similar technology. Their website notes that among other things, the internet connected set-top box can send regular wellbeing and medication checks and reminders while giving access to 24/7 support through TV messaging. Moreover, it can also be used to send text and pictures to friends and family.
Other examples of this sort of technology include wearable devices for people with dementia that alerts carers when they are wandering, something that affects 60% of dementia sufferers. The Kings Fund draws attention to inventions such as a “tremor spoon” for people with Parkinson’s disease that have sensors detecting how a person’s tremor characteristics and severity change over time, and the work on developing “smart inhalers” which can record the circumstances of each use, providing better knowledge about what triggers asthma attacks.
A survey by the South-East Health Technologies Alliance found that care homes were most “excited” by technology that would help detect and ideally, prevent falls; give early warning of infections; provide remote and continual monitoring of and assistance with eating and drinking; speed up medication management and reduce the risk of errors; and other tools that would promote independence without compromising safety.
iCare about big data
While many acts of care are intensely personal, it seems clear that technology has an increasingly important role in improving processes, commissioning and service design and delivery. Indeed, for health and social care to be properly integrated across organisations and focused around the needs of individuals, joining-up information and systems will play a fundamental role.
Oxford Brookes University’s Institute of Public Care has carried out some work on this for the Local Government Association (LGA). Their report was structured around the five key themes: integrating services and information for children, families and adults; enabling people to interact with care services through digital channels; promoting independence and wellbeing through the use of digital services and technology; integrating commissioning through the improved use of information and analysis; and enabling care professionals to work from any base at any time.
Drawing on case studies illustrating how IT is already changing the world of social care and improving the services that people receive, the report highlights a wide range of benefits. Among these is the ability of professionals to see “a single and joined-up view of the person and their whole journey”, not just those parts which their organisation is responsible. In doing so, services can become better connected and coordinated, take place in a more timely manner and avoid users having to repeat their story over again to each different part of the system.
Using so-called “big data” should also increasingly allow activity and cost information to be linked to improve commissioning and to better understand how people engage with services. Among other things, as the LGA report says, commissioners should be “better able to predict in advance what interventions will have the greatest impact - leading to early intervention and preventative approaches to care”.
There are also great hopes that tech will increasingly help people to take ownership of their own care, or the care of others, for example by enabling contact with services to take place in ways that are convenient to them, or through digital channels that will “bring reassurance to carers and families, who may not always live locally”.