The new ADASS Digital and Technology Network is happily already at the foothills of the digital revolution and is now beginning the long climb to the summit. Giant steps were made during the pandemic in both health and social care. COVID-19 is continuing to highlight the limitations of digital communication in meeting our complex social hard-wiring, especially over the impact of technology on life and death itself.

Meanwhile, the tech baron and Amazon Founder, Jeff Bezos is now focusing on banishing death altogether, by seeking to reprogram the body’s cells and so delay the effects of ageing. Altos Labs is pursuing biological reprogramming technology to reverse ageing by deep diving into our genetic makeup.  Meanwhile, the Royal Society of Medicine has been exploring how Digital Devices and developments can give us a very different pathway for the end of life.

There is much more to be learnt about the role of digital technologies and data in dying and end-of-life care. As consumers, the digital world has brought us convenience, connection, and better communications. As people using and working in health and social care services, it offers us education, empowerment, and transformation, as well as a welcome opportunity to build our own self-care. Has this potential been realised when it comes to dying and end-of-life? The global pandemic has also brought end-of-life considerations and nuanced debates about medical evidence into everyday conversation. 

What is the impact of big data and digital technology on a cradle-to-grave health and social care service? What services do we need to create to enable control in the final days of our lives and how can we achieve those? Now that this is more in the realms of the possible, how and should we create a digital legacy for those we leave behind? Is the concept of Digital Twins one we will embrace for end of life and if so, how soon? Could digital technologies change our definition of life worth living?

The most immediate and obvious change has been understanding how technology has allowed those at the end of life to communicate with family. During the pandemic, there are many examples of how it was possible for older people who could not be visited in the hospital, to communicate with their families using their iPad. Stories are told about how nurses offered patients their own mobiles, heavily wrapped in plastic to talk to family. Then, it was almost as if a penny dropped and new iPads arrived on the wards, transforming conversations into virtual communication that was both immediate and compassionate. I know from the NHS Trust on the Isle of Wight that iPads were used in Care Homes facilitating communications between health and social care and with patients. Hopefully, this will be happening much more both in the community and in Care Homes in future. We should also discuss how COVID-19 has affected palliative care teams and what changes are likely to persist and be welcomed.

Of course, Digital is about so much more than bits of kit and Apps. We will want in future to be aware of the impact of social media on the social experience of death and mourning for individuals as well as our families. We will also want to evaluate the extent to which end-of-life decisions are captured in the UK and the effective use of integrated patient, person, and clinical data and so that social workers and practitioners can enhance integrated working and more seamless pathways in future.

Julia Ross is an Associate ADASS member, she serves on the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) DigiHealth Council and is a Director on BASW National Council.