Digital capabilities should be improved to help staff practice wherever, NHS Digital fellow says

Qualified practitioner Tommy Reay discusses making technology work for frontline social care staff, including working in multiple settings

Photo: Julien Eichinger

As part of the NHS Digital Clinical Informatics Fellowship scheme, qualified social worker Tommy Reay is attempting to bridge the gap between frontline staff and national bodies to make technology, and digital solutions that could assist frontline staff, work better for the health and social care profession.

Reay has been tasked with looking at how digital systems and data is used across the adult social care sector and how it could be improved. An example of this on a day-to-day basis is working with NHS Digital’s social care statistics team to help interpret data sent by England’s local authorities. The aim is to better understand how councils and service users are affected by funding and the services commissioned.

‘The bigger picture’

Reay, who previously worked as a frontline practitioner for almost a decade, says he always possessed an urge to discover “the bigger picture”. Learning how digital systems run and discovering how data is used were just two reasons behind his desire to join the fellowship.

“As a social worker, you’re always working with your caseload and it’s busy. So, you don’t have time to think outside of your borough, your job, your office, your company. When I saw the job opportunity [with NHS Digital], it was a chance to change my perspective and try and understand how social work and the social care sector fits nationally.”

He adds his experience of the frontline gives him a unique insight into the way staff interact with systems. “If NHS Digital was working in isolation and didn’t have the frontline experience, I would be worried about the suitability of the product and the systems and the interventions that they were making.”

“Whereas, if you bring someone in someone who has worked in a number of scenarios, you add value to that organisation [and] new perspective.”

Posting as a guest writer on Lyn Romeo’s official DHSC blog, Reay recently highlighted the sector’s tendency to give “little weight” to exploring digital technology solutions. He attempts to explain the reasons behind this lack of appetite.

“I think certain aspects of social care are perhaps wary of national bodies telling someone locally what they should do. If you have a national body telling a local area what [they] should do, that local area is potentially going to say, we know our residents best, so we’ll cater for them as we see fit.”

“So, I guess that might be one of the reasons why certain local authorities perhaps are hesitant about change.”

Reay also considers the idea that those running local authorities may sometimes be “wary of getting it wrong”, especially with limited economic resources. “You have to be cost effective and accountable to your tax-payers effectively. I would certainly say that money is always an issue.”

Modernising communication 

Hesitation to experiment with technology, coupled with reduced government funding, has led to a reliance on outdated systems, according to Reay. At present, he says there are “real issues” surrounding communication between care homes and hospitals, with fax machines and even the postal system being used to deliver information.

“If you can order a takeaway on your phone, why is it that we are still heavily reliant on fax machines to transfer information between LAs and hospitals. It sounds ridiculous, but that is the case in some situations.”

He says NHS Digital has granted funding to a variety of local authorities to investigate how they can improve the information sharing between local authorities and hospitals “which is a really significant factor in terms of delayed transfers of care”.

Alongside modernising the way in which health and social care services communicate with each other, Reay speaks of the significance of providing frontline staff with the systems they need to operate in the modern world. With increasing caseloads, a reality for many social workers, practitioners are often inclined to take work home to keep pace. Current systems can make working outside of the office difficult, with social workers unable to securely access emails or sensitive documents.

Allowing social workers to complete work in a range of settings is something Reay hopes NHS Digital could consider, but he stresses the importance of having the systems in place.

“If you think about how you can use technology in your personal life and how flexible that is, why should it be that when you come to work you are then bound by archaic structures? Surely we need to be savvy with the way we use digital technology to make that better.”

“You’re dealing with someone’s life, [and] someone’s life doesn’t neatly fit in to your office space. You need to be able to work where you can.”

Taking responsibility 

Reay concedes that, technologically speaking, it is “in the realms of capability that social work IT systems can allow social workers to access work from outside of the office”. But processes and authentication procedures exist to aid security, which allow users to “access documents remotely without having to download and thus retains secure connection without breach of sensitive documents. There is of course a sense of responsibility on the worker at home but I would say the same principal applies to workers in the office”.

By exploring and investing in digital solutions, Reay says councils and social workers would be able to recover time to spend with service users.

“In my experience, social workers can get very bogged down in the paperwork and they can often become paper workers rather than social workers.”

“A way to improve that would be to improve the digital capabilities of a system, so that you spend less time following through processes on a system. [It] becomes far more streamlined and you capture the information you need to and that allows you or frees you up to go and see the people you need to see, to keep them safe and make sure they’re not isolated, as an example.”

Working with NHS Digital’s chief social worker Mark Nicholas, Reay is launching a national digital capability campaign for social workers towards the end of the year. The campaign aims to form a network of social workers interested in technology and how it interacts with their role.

With just over six months left in the post, Reay encourages social workers and councils to share their projects and progress with NHS Digital.

“I’d be really interested to know how local authorities are using digital technology to engage with their services users. There are examples of that working over the country, and it’s really interesting to see how councils can be creative with digital technology.”

Social workers interested in participating can contact Tommy Reay at digital.socialcare@nhs.net 

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