Into the virtual social care future

How technology is changing social care: a special report

Social care may appear to lag behind in the technology race, but work is being done that could transform the profession in the months and years ahead. Kirsty McGregor reports

Data capture

Data capture could significantly speed up the case recording process and reduce the need for administrative support staff. The term “data capture” refers to the process of automatically entering information into a central computer system as you write or record it. So, rather than returning to the office and uploading handwritten notes into the integrated children’s system, a social worker would use a tablet PC or digital pen technology to send the notes as they are being written.

Digital pens capture hundreds of pictures of where the pen strokes are in relation to digital dots on the page. Any assessment form could be adapted for use, says Edward Belgeonne, chief executive and founder of Destiny Wireless. Within two minutes of completion, the data would be available in text form and, again, this could be instantly transmitted to a central records system. “The biggest benefit of the digital pen is that it’s a pen,” says Belgeonne. “Everyone knows how to use it.”

For lone workers, an “alert” box could be added to the form. If ticked, it would open up a communications system so that somebody could listen in and determine if the worker needed help. Other touch screen technology could be used; so, for example, you could write notes on the screen of your iPad with your finger and it would change it into text. These technologies could be accompanied by an audio recorder embedded within the digital pen or mobile device.

Mobile access to records

Forward-thinking employers are beginning to embrace mobile IT systems, such as smartphones, the iPad and other tablet PCs, which allow social workers to complete assessments while they are visiting clients. But this is only the beginning. “Mobilisation is going to be even more critical in the future,” says OLM Systems’ Mark Denton. He argues that social care will always involve face-to-face contact, so it will increasingly rely on technology to make home visits as efficient as possible.

Applications such as iNurse, which allows nurses to access patient details on their mobile device, and iConnect, which provides health care workers with schedules telling them where they need to go and when, could easily be adapted to home visits for social care workers. Social workers could use their smartphone or tablet PC to check where they need to go next and how to get there, as well as accessing and even updating records.

“We can normally increase the number of face-to-face visits by 40% on average,” says Vin Murria, chief executive of Advanced Computer Software.

Telepresence and meetings on the move

Rushing off to attend child protection conferences or strategy meetings in person could soon be unnecessary thanks to developments in virtual conferencing. Video conferencing is not a new concept, but product management head Mark Denton at care sector technology provider OLM Systems says this will be harnessed to greater effect in the coming years.

For example, “telepresence” technologies, which have been compared by some to holograms, could allow a person to give the impression that they are physically present in another location. “If you have a mobile, laptop or netbook in front of you when you’re sitting in a service user’s home, you could bring in a specialist consultant through virtual conferencing,” says Denton.

For meetings on the move, social workers can already access video conferencing on their mobile, laptop or netbook. But in the future, meetings could be held in a virtual space, where social workers send their avatars, or virtual representations of themselves, instead of attending in person. “Virtual conferencing is particularly useful for small teams, because you don’t want them all driving into the office,” says Denton. “They could attend a case conference without getting out of their cars.”

Robots and avatars

Projects such as Robots and Avatars, led by multimedia design collective Body Data Space, are exploring how the future workforce across all sectors may use new representational forms of themselves in the next 10-15 years. For example, as mentioned above, in future, social workers may present their avatar at a virtual meeting rather than driving over to the physical location. And scientists are already developing robots to provide care and companionship for elderly people, which will have further training implications for social care workers. “New social workers will be familiar with these modern technologies and will demand relevant training,” says Denton. “The profession needs to keep up.”

Virtual training and learning

It may be a while before councils fork out for the equipment and training to make effective use of technology in social care delivery. In the meantime, however, higher education institutions and social work training experts are already exploring the educational possibilities of virtual worlds and interactivity.

Virtual worlds such as Maritime City, a computer environment developed by students at Greenwich University, will allow students to interact with virtual service users. The game simulates a home visit and asks the trainee social worker to make decisions based on the events that unfold on screen. “There has been a push for much more immersive, scenario-based learning, where you can try things out safely and get feedback,” says Ian Haynes, digital strategy director for interactive media agency Cimex. Haynes says work is now being done to make virtual worlds truly interactive. For example, Microsoft is developing software that recognises the user’s facial expressions so the characters on screen can react to the user.

Technology is also changing continuing professional development. For example, the Social Care Institute for Excellence is beginning to include more animation and 3D representations in its training tools. “New social workers now are digital natives, so we build as much interactivity into our learning as possible,” says Gavin Nettleton, Scie’s head of e-learning.

Some social workers can already access live, interactive teaching on their smartphones, laptops or tablet PCs, which allows them to share presentations and stream multimedia and live video. On a wider scale, this will make professional development more efficient because systems will be able to automatically record every activity that is done and how much time is spent doing it.

Haynes adds that GPS could be used to identify where a social worker is and highlight training materials relevant to certain settings. For example, if the GPS system recognised that a social worker had arrived at a dementia care home, it could access the social worker’s previous CPD records and alert him or her to any recent updates to legislation or practice learning.

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