Tech can help drive positive risk-taking in adult social care

A digital revolution is at hand for adult social care – making it happen means using information intelligently, argues Helen Sunderland

“I don’t do it for me, I do it so we, and the gadgets get better.” This is what 85-year-old ‘digital disruptor’ Joyce told me in a recent discussion about assistive technology (AT).

For the last couple of years, Joyce has been a tester of new kit for Alcove, one of my employer EY’s partners in the London Ventures innovation programme for local authorities. Meeting Joyce and seeing technology in action really made me question some of the attitudes that surround AT.

Older people can’t use technology and don’t want to anyway… do they?

We often make some bold assumptions about older people’s ability and willingness to get involved in the digital age. The reality is that not only does the intuitive nature of today’s kit make it genuinely user friendly, it is also quite fun.

Frankly, even if today’s octogenarians aren’t tech-savvy, tomorrow’s will be – so given the time and investment it often takes to implement capital programmes and transform ways of working, we should be focusing on how we ensure the next generation of ‘e-grandparents’ will engage with services and manage their own care.

But the reality is, provided it’s introduced and supported in the right way and the service/kit actually does what it says on the case, older people and their families/support networks are happy to experiment with different ways to stay connected, resilient and safe.

Can we really expect a fax machine to make a cuppa?

Well… no. But often when you say ‘assistive technology’ to people, it conjures up images of giant pendants and the sounds of an old dial-up connection floating through the halls. The reality is, the kit has been revolutionised over the past 10 years, in line with the rest of the tech explosion.

Wearables, apps, sensors, cameras and screens can now combine to create managed home solutions that anyone could benefit from. When these are applied to a vulnerable person’s situation, to help drive positive risk-taking in retaining independence, the potential is huge. The following are all a reality with the technology available today:

  • Supporting social connectivity through Skype, as well as virtual consultations with medical professionals
  • Tracking visitors to ensure safety and monitor service provision, with a potential live link to quality assessment
  • Tracking movement throughout the house to identify falls and understand better how spaces can be organised for accessibility
  • Linking to smart home applications to ensure a person’s environment is supportive.

None of this might make you a cuppa as yet, but perhaps if your kettle upped its game we wouldn’t be far off.

How can so much information lead to so little intelligence?

Today, health and care services collect huge amounts of data, across a range of organisations, about individuals’ needs, services and outcomes. Yet we do very little with it.

Real-time information has significant implications for helping more informed commissioning. In turn, given the ongoing financial challenges in care, this can help services to more proactively realise demand management benefits and reduce inefficiencies. Consolidation of waking nights, reduction in requirements for home care and avoiding of residential care have already been particular areas of success in pilot areas.

Using this information to drive a more fundamental care pathway redesign means we can more holistically find new, different and more cost effective ways of meeting need.

One of our other Venture partners, Xantura, is a pioneer in data analytics – reading multiple systems to identify individuals and families at risk based on the nature of contact with different authorities. This allows earlier intervention in situations, before they escalate significantly.

Perhaps the nirvana here is the ability to mine the analytics generated from our AT systems, coupled with artificial intelligence to help identify risks and causality for escalating needs in older people – allowing us to truly refine our approach to prediction and prevention in the context of elderly care and support.

Fine, let’s just buy some new kit – that will sort it won’t it?

But while the technology is advancing, the delivery approach – often due to limited funding – is not. As with many technology programmes, we see a number of challenges in the implementation. To make this work sustainably, the implementation approach is as important as the shape of the service. It requires cultural and practice change across the organisation. It requires commissioning and management of AT to not be: fragmented and separate from the rest of support services; disconnected from other providers; or rolled out in an ad hoc way. Without this, the pace, rigour and true beneficial impact (in terms of improved outcomes, independence and financial sustainability) that the current exciting technology innovations allow will remain constrained.

This is an exciting time – social care is ready to embrace its digital revolution. I only hope the Green Paper on funding recognises some of the increasingly important capital aspects of spend that if done right, will help get the service back on a sustainable footing.

Helen Sunderland is national social care lead at EY.

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