How technology might just save the social care sector

While software developments will not replace frontline staff they strip a lot of cost out of social care processes, says Richard Pantlin

Photo: Cultura/Rex Features

By Richard Pantlin

Given cuts to social care budgets and increasing demand, can technology save the care and health sector?

With the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services and technology representative body techUK, I organised the #CareApps Showcase last month in Leeds. We invited developers of a wide variety of software applications aimed at users of care services and their carers to present their products.

A selection panel included people with lived experience of care from the Think Local Act Personal National Co-production Advisory Group. We narrowed down 30 applicants to the best 11 to present pop-up pitches to the audience of 200 delegates, almost entirely from local authorities.

So do we think care apps can replace frontline staff?

NO!

How apps can reduce pressures on the sector

But there are three ways in which they can help reduce the pressure we all feel in the sector. They can:

  1. improve efficiency of current council processes;
  2. build micro eco-systems of friends & family care around individuals in the community;
  3. transition mixed staff groups towards truly integrated, person-centred working.

Each of these three becomes increasingly complex for local authorities to influence but potentially offer greater and greater benefits to the state and citizens.

This article focuses on how apps could achieve the first aim of improving the efficiency of council processes, including examples from the #CareApps Showcase.

Self-service

First come the facilities for citizens to “self-serve” online, in other words completing processes that would otherwise be carried out with council staff, either over the phone or face-to-face. A good example of one of these is the online financial assessment offered by Oxford Computer Consultants (OCC). This enables someone (potentially) receiving care services from the council to complete all their financial details online just as you would do for your online tax return. It then calculates how much you will have to contribute to the cost of your care package.

This is an improved service for the public because they can obtain an immediate calculation at any time for the day or night (and, of course, a family member could complete the form if the person themselves is unable to do so). The facility improves the efficiency of council processes – especially if the data can be automatically loaded into the back office system (which is promised if that also comes from OCC or another supplier offers an interface).

A somewhat similar example is a tool to enable people to assess whether they are eligible for a deferred payment agreement and if so, how much they would have to pay. This was developed by IEG4 and funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government).

Self-assessment

More problematic are online self-assessments of needs since this is a more subjective process benefiting from professional input. However, multiple councils are implementing online self-referral or screening tools. These can signpost members of the public to a wide variety of services depending on their situation if their needs are not likely to meet eligibility thresholds.
Where the individual may be eligible for council care, these systems serve a useful function by ensuring basic information is gathered in a standard way making it easier for a social care professional to move on to a proper initial assessment. This can be particularly effective for online referrals from external  professionals as Derbyshire County Council has found – reducing the need for assessment staff to go back to the referrer for extra information.

There is also growing evidence of carer self-assessment becoming popular where that has offered to help manage the clearer statutory responsibility on councils to assess and support carers since April 2015, under the Care Act.

More radical change

So far the examples are not “apps” in the sense of being downloadable from an app store – rather they tend to be software hosted by, or on behalf of, a local authority, to be accessed from a laptop, tablet or mobile. They can improve council efficiencies and thereby provide the same or better service to more people at reduced cost – assuming that councils can encourage citizens to “channel shift” to online options, which can be difficult in our sector.

However, these tools do not alter demand for care services nor do they enable radical transformation of processes.  The other two areas of #CareApps for “consumers” and technology for truly integrated teams offer greater potential but are harder to achieve.

These will be the subject of separate pieces.

Richard Pantlin is an independent social care consultant working part-time for the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services as programme manager for its engaging citizens online workstream with the Local Government Association. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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5 Responses to How technology might just save the social care sector

  1. Alex Knapp November 18, 2015 at 12:00 pm #

    Interesting article…

    We have been supporting the sector to use technology since 2006

    http://CareCertificate.co.uk
    http://www.logontocare.org.uk

  2. Graham November 18, 2015 at 2:31 pm #

    Rather than introducing new digital systems into social work, employers would better improve efficiency by updating the cumbersome and archaic case management systems already in use. It saddens me to see colleagues sitting for hours in front of computer screens rather than out visiting vulnerable clients and planning for their care. Some of my colleagues estimate that it may take a one or two hour visit to carry out an initial assessment but it can then take a full day to enter it into the computer system and set up a basic care package. The systems are dated, overwritten (often collecting information that is never collated or used) they attempt to perform too many tasks (replacing skilled support staff in the process) and as a consequence do none of them well. I am afraid social workers have become management system operatives and much of the creativity and enjoyment seems to have gone out of the profession.

  3. keith November 19, 2015 at 2:12 pm #

    I agree that social workers have become well-paid admin. I sometimes observe my colleagues all stting in the same office tapping furiously at their keyboards – seeminglt the harder and faster they time, the more work they are performing! The paperwork continues to increase and any system failure means that we have to re-do the work.

  4. Keith November 21, 2015 at 12:36 pm #

    A very good article but may l add to the 100 …Mevarius an Electronuc home care monitoring solution

  5. Wendy Miller December 8, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

    I agree with Graham’s comment. What employers are not good at is investing in their systems and the ICT skills of their staff. Most people come into contact/use some form of IT on a daily basis, but unwilling to embrace it within the workplace.