Amid surging COVID-19 cases, the UK Government has announced a second national lockdown to curb cases before Christmas. For everyone, particularly those with additional support needs, this is significant. Given the health risks around increasing infection rates, coupled with the potentially isolating impact of social distancing, how can we use technology to improve the social care we provide?
The ‘Culture-Aware Robots and Environmental Sensor Systems for Elderly Support (CARESSES) project1, trialled the use of ‘social’ robots in care homes. Interestingly, looking at recently published trial results, although the communication wasn’t human, these lovable robots were found both to improve mental health and reduce loneliness of the care home residents. The necessary, rapid uptake of technology during the pandemic has shown quite how quickly things can change when we have to. However, how can we truly capitalise on some of the innovative trials and pilots to drive an end-to-end personalised, modernisation of social care delivery? How far are we willing to go to transform social care in the long term - and are innovations like friendly, caring robots the right step forward?
We already use technology to promote wellbeing and independence by enabling individuals to live their lives with less direct intervention. Approximately 1.7 million people are currently supported by technology-enabled-care2 and demand is increasing. User-friendly, secure tablet devices are enabling people to communicate virtually with their care providers, families and friends. These devices also offer reminders to complete tasks, such as taking medication or doing laundry, promoting independence as well as safety. The reciprocal benefits for family members, for example, who wish to check in on their loved ones should also not be underestimated.
The question remaining is can we do more? Are we currently making the most of the breadth of technology available for use across the end-to-end pathway? Are we engaging effectively with the breadth of social care providers to understand how it can help to better meet outcomes and sustain what is a fragmented market? If we identify the biggest social care challenges, are there new, evolving or unthought of technologies that could address these? Increasing the use of technology further in this regard could transform and cultivate new and unseen benefits; using data to tailor care to individuals, accelerating responses through automation, and transforming the way councils, service providers and citizens engage and are responded to. Technology will change the way we deliver social care; allowing us to care more from a distance connecting people to their social capital more readily, but also helping us therefore direct the critical physical interactions more effectively. The COVID-19 pandemic has expedited this – necessity (in this case social distancing) being the mother of invention.
A recent LGA report3 highlighted two main limiting factors: ever-present and ever-increasing funding pressures, and our acceptance of technology as a ‘care provider’. These should not be barriers. Forward-thinking groups, like the CARESSES project, have realised that we can capitalise on our technology investment to free-up time for other requirements, or even to generate income. And the results speak for themselves.
Individuals have very different abilities and desires to engage with technology, and we must take this into account when providing digital social care. Options for tech-enabled care should be aimed at the individual to reap full benefits and flexibility. Throughout the pandemic, councils have done this via many methods, from training to tablet lending schemes. Collaboration between councils and care providers is essential here to support digital adoption. The funding problem is likely to increase, with impending winter pressures and the incoming second wave, which means councils should try to evidence the cost benefits of tech-enabled solutions wherever possible, to highlight the upwards battle they are fighting.
The possibilities for existing tech-enabled-care are vast. We are not yet making best use of it. COVID-19 has transformed how we provide care – remote reviews, remote working and reducing social isolation – maximising efficiency whilst minimising non-essential social contact. It is important that these lessons are used to evolve further how we work. We need to establish and nurture our relationships with tech suppliers and social care providers to create innovation in the market and reduce funding barriers. In all of this though, social care must remain human-focussed.
Technology can, and should, allow us to further personalise service delivery and provide much-needed extra support for our already overstretched social care system. Talking robots may not be the only answer, but perhaps they can help.
- Covid-19: Robots help care home residents stay in touch, BBC News, 21st April 2020 - https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/technology-52323066
- From Stabilisation to Innovation: The Response and Redesign of TEC Services during COVID-19, The TSA Sector Insight Report, July 2020- https://www.tsa-voice.org.uk/campaigns/download-the-tsa-sector-insight-report-2020/
- Digital innovation in adult social care: how we’ve been supporting communities during COVID-19, Local Government Association, August 2020 - https://www.local.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/25.172%20Digital%20innovation%20in%20adult%20social%20care_3.pdf
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