Government should invest wisely to harness ‘robot power’
This article was first published in The MJ
When the COVID-19 tide finally turns, what will it reveal? One feature of the landscape that will be unchanged is the imbalance between the demand for care and a workforce sufficient to satisfy it. In October last year, Skills for Care estimated that over half-a-million additional care workers will be needed in England by 2035 to meet demand. Whilst the COVID-19 crisis highlighted the essential contribution made by paid carers, it also demonstrated how physically and emotionally demanding the job can be. As the dust settles, this may cause some to exit and deter others from entering the profession.
A positive legacy of COVID-19 is the realisation that creating effective solutions to challenges through technological or scientific innovation can be achieved far more rapidly than previously thought. As the UK Ventilator Challenge showed, it need not take years to get a new device into use, nor a decade to develop a working vaccine. These remarkable feats can be achieved relatively quickly, with sufficient shared motivation and resources.
Will ‘getting back to normal’ mean we return to the slower pre pandemic pace of innovation? I hope not, for two reasons. Firstly, whilst tackling the care workforce challenge may feel less urgent than COVID-19, it is no less threatening for social care. If we move too slowly, we risk ending up like the metaphorical ‘frog in hot water’. Secondly, there are technological solutions available today that indicate how the care workforce could be better supported and more productive. We are not starting with a blank sheet.
Last autumn, Hampshire CC reported that their project to trial cobotic exoskeletons (cobots) in social care had been a success. It showed, for 18 care workers in six care settings, that wearing a cobot made them: more likely to comply with good moving and handling practice and therefore less exposed to injury; less tired after a busy shift and; more confident and able to work independently in cases where a second carer had been previously thought necessary. Importantly, the carers involved appreciated being given some new technology to help them do their job, and the people they cared for were pleased too.
There are good reasons for optimism. But the question now is how do we create the conditions for more initiatives like this to be scaled into the mainstream to mitigate the UK’s workforce challenge? Innovation of this type cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Social care commissioners need established, trusting relationships with specialists who have the desire to work collaboratively on complex problems. In addition, upfront investment is required, and cash will be in short supply in local authorities post-COVID-19. This is where UK Government has an important role to play. For example, by providing the funds to take a calculated risk proportionate to the potential return, and by encouraging the development of outcome-focused collaborations.
On 15 January 2021, a report was published by the House of Lords Select Committee on Ageing: Science, Technology and Healthy Living. Contributors to the report questioned the way UK Government currently directs public investment in technology to support the ageing society. Some felt that too large a proportion of funding is awarded to eye-catching ‘blue sky’ ideas, which tend to be high-risk bets with long time horizons. They argue for greater investment in solutions that are close to being market-ready and require support for rapid scaling.
Encouragingly, the Lords’ report recommends that “Government makes targeted and strategic investments in research for the design, evaluation and uptake of data-driven services, assistive robot technologies and AI for older people, in order to develop national expertise and critical mass in this important area.”
‘National expertise’ must be defined broadly. The technical insight to design and create a cobot, AI engine or data lake is necessary, but it is not sufficient for success. The technological breakthrough must be followed by sustained effort to change hearts and minds, to implement processes that make it easy to get the solution into play, and to gather robust evidence that intended outcomes are being achieved. Without investment in these more mundane activities, even the most stunning technological innovations might fail to gain traction, and opportunities to solve the significant challenges facing the care sector will be missed.