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The tech-led future of social care post COVID-19

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As we look to the future of social care, Steve Morgan, partnership director at Agilisys, assesses what needs to be done at this ‘digital tipping point’ in time.

Chronic underfunding, a workforce crisis, a lack of modernisation and the COVID-19 pandemic are all testing social care to the limits. As we emerge from the other side, the sector has an opportunity to reassess, redesign and re-ignite a strategy for lasting, effective change.

We are at a digital tipping point; an apex leading to a much faster uptake of new technology and online working. The pandemic saw many social care organisations move services such as assessments, care planning and outreach to a digital environment at astonishing pace. This is momentum we should harness. 

Steve Morgan

The need for a strategic view

The social care system is complex and fragmented, with care being provided by around 18,500 organisations throughout the country. Good practice being developed in one part of the care sector is difficult to share. I therefore believe that a multi-agency, holistic view is needed to achieve a positive, co-produced vision for social care.

By thinking long-term and bringing together the fragmented sector, funding decisions can be made for the good of the whole sector – and arguably stretch further. If this can be used to drive efficiencies and modernise the traditional, very labour-oriented service, then progress can be made. If the sector is viewed as one that invests in technology, innovation and its people, it will attract a whole new cohort.

Technologies leading the charge

Demand for care is not going to reduce, so something must change – and I think technology is at the heart of lasting, meaningful transformation. These are the critical technologies that I believe can transform the future of care:

  • Collaboration tools

There is a growing movement towards a ‘delivery ecosystem’ of collaboration tools, including specialist video devices and consumer technologies that are more accessible to the majority of care providers. Depending on needs, you can plug in different sensors and monitoring capabilities into a connectivity hub, which enables everything from telehealth and telecare to social inclusion and family contact, without the need to have six or seven different boxes plugged in and connected.

  • Automation

Whether it be a Carelink service, a local authority contact centre or a charitable organisation that is helping with the care provision, there has been a fundamental switch from inbound telephony-based contact services to proactive outbound ones, where video is an integral part of the contact mix. If you are going to make those services more productive, you have got to reduce inbound demand. 

That is where artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and robotic process automation (RPA) can play an important part. If the repeatable, mundane and everyday tasks are looked after through automation, rather than humans, you create time for people to do the work that makes a difference to them and the people they care for. 

  • Predictive Analytics 

Data is critical to any strategic, joined-up future of care. The sector needs to question how it can effectively capture data and then use it in multiple ways, not least to predict demand. By using predictive analytics to understand when somebody is in danger of presenting into health or residential care, you can dramatically reduce the overall cost of care delivery. 

If you can predict what the right intervention is at the right time, you have a hugely powerful tool. Using data to inform more effective decisions is the way forward and it will be interesting to see how the rise of the Integrated care system (ICS) brings together data collection and joined-up data usage.

  • Connected homes

Housing is a key area to driving modern social care. There needs to be some fundamental differences made to housing stock though. Technology can identify when there are issues with damp, carbon dioxide or humidity. Inexpensive sensors can measure temperature, allowing identification of households suffering fuel poverty. By ensuring knowledge of the environment vulnerable people are living in, you reduce or even remove any knock-on effects. 

  • Social care cost modelling

Social care makes up most of the local authority spend. ​In 2018/19, total expenditure on social care by councils was £22.2bn. During the same period, 82 per cent of local authorities overspent against their children’s social care budget, while in adult social care this figure was 47 per cent. Using data to predict outcomes​ and effective routes forward, social care cost modelling enables users to take any cohort of children or adults and apply one or more of a huge range of potential scenarios to it. This shows authorities how much social care services are costing them, and what they can do about it. 

  • Microsoft Viva

Employee Experience platforms, notably Microsoft’s new Viva solution, are a vital digital tool as remote working becomes permanent. The transition raises a crucial question: how does an organisation create a culture, a sense of belonging, a mission and connection in the absence of a physical presence? Products such as Viva focus on employee wellbeing to help avoid burnout, highlight efficiency gains, and bring knowledge together in one place. 

  • Mobile devices

The use of mobile technology and improved connection speeds enables quick access to information across the care system and empowers care professionals. Providing frontline staff with mobile remote working solutions, encompassing appropriate software and client information, allows professionals to spend more time with their clients, as well as speeding up data capture, decision-making processes and reducing transcribing errors.

The importance of user engagement

Of course, technology alone will not drive the change the care sector needs. There is nothing more confusing and irritating for staff than change for change’s sake. If the purpose of a new app or piece of software is not apparent, then it already presents a cognitive issue to your team. Only by engaging the intended users through a change programme will change be given the maximum opportunity to succeed.

The process of gathering information and insights to underpin your transformation strategy provides a great opportunity to engage with your organisation’s culture. Structured interviews with stakeholders, open and informal workshops, and the opportunity to comment anonymously via online surveys are all excellent ways to stimulate conversations, test ideas and achieve buy-in.

The goal is to create a platform for change, built around a compelling vision that inspires people to take action because they can see that transformation is relevant and beneficial for them too.

Five key actions to take now

As the world resets following the pandemic, now is unquestionably the time for bold action to transform social care. We must commit to a progressive new vision for adult social care, one that delivers a more preventative, asset-based, accessible, co-produced and joined-up system of care and support. These are five key actions I believe should be taken now to power lasting change:

1. Plan for further austerity
We must think of every aspect of the delivery of care, whether that is from a social care or a health perspective. Is it the right thing to do? Is the level of spending correct? What is the value associated with what we are doing? Do this right and it will drive a fundamental shift in thinking; one towards treating the delivery of care like a business.

2. Introduce creativity to strategic thinking
Care is one of those few areas in in the 21st century, where there appears to be little strategic thinking around the continual improvement of service delivery. It is time to mirror the NHS and implement a five-year plan.

3. Mapping the opportunities to bring services together
If you look at the delivery of assessments, you could have a cognitive assessment, a needs assessment, a financial assessment, and a behavioural assessment. Each one is delivered by different bodies. Far better to bring those together and have them delivered by a single individual who is empowered to operate on behalf of those other organisations. Joined-up, multi-agency thinking is required. 

4. Think prevention, not cure
To have people at the heart of delivery of social care we need to think about a preventative and proactive approach. Preventative investment in social care will deliver benefits to society as more people will stay healthy, happy and independent for as long as possible. It will also impact positively upon the public purse. 

5. Embrace organisation-wide technology now

A recent paper from Socitm showed social workers are more ‘digital ready’ than previously thought. Therefore, more frontline staff need to be engaged in identifying opportunities for digital improvements; not just in improving service management and client outcomes, but in projecting what the future shape of social care could be.

Improving outcomes

If we invest in scaling up preventative, person-centred approaches to care, including asset-based solutions to reducing social isolation, shared lives and community agents, outcomes can be improved, and costs reduced.

As part of this solution, we need to invest in technology. If used correctly, technology has a huge potential to support more people to live independently. Data, workforce and true partnerships, which bring into the equation the necessary and potentially cost-saving collaboration, are critical in delivering the right care at the right time and making real differences for people.

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