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Post-Covid boost for care tech needs to focus on outcomes

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Recent months have seen rapid growth in the adoption of technology by the care sector. That’s likely to continue, but local authorities must be bolder and embrace collaboration, as well as paying more attention to the results they actually want to achieve.

The last few months have seen the biggest leap forward in the adoption of technology since the mobile phone. This change has been felt across all aspects of life, but particularly so in the care sector. Families are engaging with their vulnerable loved ones virtually as an alternative to physical visits, and care technology solutions are being deployed to avoid entering the homes of people who are shielding. Local government and business are collaborating to enable technology to enhance the activity of the care workforce and respond to unprecedented demand for adult care services.

Wearable devices, electronic at-home diagnostic devices and other technologies are already helping people remain in their own homes and improving their quality of life – while also delivering financial benefits. Physical wearable technology, such as collaborative robots, or ‘cobots’, are enhancing carers’ ability to provide physical assistance to vulnerable service users. And consumer devices like Amazon Echo are helping people feel less isolated and more independent.

However, councils now have the opportunity to go farther and act faster. That will require radical rethinking by local authority digital leaders to focus more on the purpose of the technology they deploy, to be bolder and to embrace collaboration.

There are many stories of councils commissioning care technology that never reaches the homes of people who will benefit from it most. Tackling this means shifting the focus from specific technologies to their purpose. That requires an understanding of the outcomes social care services want to achieve and then looking at how technology can enable those outcomes. That should also include co-designing new services with the people who will be using them. All that should be underpinned by a focus on the wider value of new digital services to understand the overall return on investment they can bring.

The Argenti care partnership demonstrates the effectiveness of this approach. It uses care technology to increase independence and reduce reliance on others and transforms how we support people, assessing each person individually to find the most effective system for them. In a survey of users, 98 per cent said they would recommend the service to others and 94 per cent that care technology has increased their feeling of safety and security. In addition, the financial benefits are clear; by the end of the fifth year of the service the net savings to the council involved were estimated to be £9.8m.

Deploying new technology services successfully also demands boldness – the courage to experiment even when the results are uncertain. But this requires some frank conversations. In some instances, digital delivery will lessen the need for human interaction, such as in adult social care settings. Some pilot schemes have shown that people would rather receive certain aspects of care remotely or from robots. This alleviates pressures on more scarce and valuable resources – people – freeing carers to focus on where they offer most value.

This can be seen in the first ever trial of collaborative robots - or cobots - in the UK care sector, led by Hampshire County Council and PA consulting. Already in use in Japan, cobots are worn around the lower back and actively assist carers in moving or supporting people. Early findings from the trial has shown that a person with complex needs who previously required two carers, can, in some instances, be supported effectively by just one. This not only helps to make the social care system more resilient to growing demand– in Hampshire alone, it is estimated that an extra 6,000 people in caring jobs could be needed over the next five years - it also alleviates social-distancing concerns. They can also provide people with greater dignity in care and if cobots can be shown to be effective their use should be scaled up fast.

Traditionally, the public sector has found it difficult to develop digital tools due to financial limitations and skills shortages. Collaboration, building on existing relationships, will be key as it looks to capitalise on technologies such as AI and automation, robotics, the internet of things and shared platforms.

One example is the use of government data to help councils triage support to shielded people. More than 50,000 people were shielding in Hampshire following lockdown, and it was clear that a traditional approach could not make the number of contacts needed. Within two weeks PA Consulting, Amazon Web Services and Hampshire County Council implemented a chatbot-driven Wellbeing Automated Calls Service or WACS, able to make 100 calls per hour. In a 10-week period, the WACS system did what would have taken six months using traditional approaches. This avoided the need to use frontline staff on this work, helping them to focus on those who most needed their support and deploy the data to enable personalised and better care.

The challenges of the post-Covid world are huge, but these examples show there is a clear opportunity and imperative to embed real change in care services by using technology with a focus on purpose and the outcomes that will make a difference.

Lesley Grant is a local government expert at PA Consulting.

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