This article was first published in The MJ.
It is clear that the pressures on social care funding are only going to increase. In May 2018, the King’s Fund reported that by 2030/31 the sector will require an extra £12 billion to meet demand, an average annual increase of 3.7%. Yet, spending over that period is currently projected to grow by just 2.1%, leaving a potential funding gap of £6 billion by 2030/31.
The upcoming social care Green Paper needs to look at new approaches to funding and options to bridge that gap. It should also inspire innovation and the better use of technology to cut costs and to improve the quality of care.
Through its Argenti partnership with PA Consulting, Hampshire County Council provides growing evidence of the beneficial impact of technology on social care. HCC has already made £7.1m net savings in its first four years of operation by using technology enabled care services. Argenti adopts a radically different approach to traditional telecare by working with social workers to meet the individual’s needs, such as reducing the risk of falls. This has resulted in improved levels of satisfaction among its 10,000 users and reduced the need for other types of care.
Hampshire is also now using more radical and disruptive uses for technology in care, including combatting social isolation. Some 50,000 Hampshire residents over the age of 65 are categorised as ‘mildly’ lonely and a further 20,000 as ‘intensely’ lonely. To test whether technology could address their needs, in early 2017, Argenti piloted the use of specially adapted tablet PCs and simplified video conferencing systems with older people. This helped them to them to connect with family, friends and their local communities. 65% of participants said they had more contact because of the technology, with 80% recommending the technologies to others.
Following a successful application to the Local Government Association for funding under its Local Investment Programme, the council is now pioneering the use of Amazon Echo in mainstream social care with 50 users. Early feedback has been very positive, with people with almost no mobility or vision can now control lights, radio and appliances and reporting that the devices have transformed their lives. Tellingly, their carers report that they too have benefitted, with the technology enabling them to let their loved ones be more independent.
Argenti. Putting digital technology at the heart of social care and saving millions
Most recently, the council has been looking at the use of “cobots,” machines designed to enhance a human’s abilities. They are commonly used in mining, engineering and industrial contexts but have not, as yet, been deployed in social care. At the moment, lifting and moving people uses old technology (hoists and slings) meaning that two carers are often required. A cobot could support a single carer to carry out that lifting activity and PA has been conducting research for the council to see how they could be used to reduce double-handed carer visits. This could have a significant effect as one third of Hampshire’s £42m domiciliary care budget, goes on such visits, a proportion that is set to increase.
It could also help to tackle growing workforce shortages in this market. Work by the NAO found that the number of people working in care is already not meeting demand and a Skills for Care report found a vacancy rate of 9.2% in domiciliary care, underlining this sector’s real recruitment challenge.
While the potential of technology is clear, it is important to understand that it is not an end itself and councils need to be focused on how meeting the individual’s care needs. That means making sure those planning to deploy new technology are not dazzled by the latest gadget and are focused on making it a natural part of an integrated, person-centred service. This needs to be an easy option for care professionals and services users alike, avoiding the historic mistake of splitting the service into separate functions of assessment, equipment selection, installation and monitoring.
Meeting social care needs will remain a challenge but Hampshire’s experience shows that the right technology deployed in the right way can make a real difference. Innovative approaches to it could be the key to the Green Paper’s opportunity to transform social care.
David Rees is head of local government services at PA Consulting