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?
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:
- improve efficiency of current council processes;
- build micro eco-systems of friends & family care around individuals in the community;
- 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.
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).
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.