Throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s care home sector has constantly been under the spotlight due to the severe threat that the disease poses to vulnerable residents, receiving much unfair media and political criticism over its handling of the crisis.
Among the accusations levied against the industry was Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s claim that ‘too many homes didn’t follow procedures’ and had therefore contributed to thousands more deaths than would otherwise have occurred if regulations had been adhered to more closely.
This remark was, quite rightly, met with widespread condemnation at the time, with one charity boss branding it as ‘clumsy and cowardly’, while the National Care Forum called the comment ‘frankly hugely insulting’ to care workers.
The reality is that care homes have been on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis and have played a decisive role in keeping residents safe, but it is fair to say that such criticism has undermined their reputation for providing quality care.
If the sector is to restore its reputation as we look to an increasingly digitised world beyond COVID, it must recognise the part that digital technologies have to play in tackling the industry’s most intractable challenges.
The crisis the care sector faces
A recent report published by Age UK concludes that, between 2017 and 2040, the population of people aged over 65 is projected to increase by 49 per cent, while the number of those above the age of 85 – the group most likely to need health and care services – is expected to soar from 1.4 to 2.7 million over the same period.
As the country’s population continues to live longer, it stands to reason that more and more people will be in need of social care over time, which will in turn place an even greater strain on services and leave many older people without the high-quality provision that they need.
However, much progress has been made in delivering tech enabled solutions that have the capability to plug the gaps in social care availability by minimising the need for greater human engagement and decision making and focusing instead on monitoring health and wellbeing through the use of data and analytics.
Why tech is the solution
For example, easy-to-use, Internet of Things [IoT] battery powered sensors are being installed in the homes of vulnerable residents and are helping to safeguard their health and wellbeing by monitoring their day-to-day activity using a combination of historical and real-time data.
In response to any sudden drop in activity, the sensors send an alert message to carers, enabling appropriate action to be taken, and initial pilot schemes suggest that the technology is highly effective at minimising the risk of severe injury or death.
The sensors can be used to complement other, more conventional solutions, such as pendant alarms, that require a greater level of human interaction in order to work most effectively.
The key issue associated with such solutions, however, is their reliance on the resident to wear them on their person so that they can call for help in the event of an emergency, and statistics from Alertacall show that up to 80% of users do not always wear them, with a further 24% saying that they never wear them at all.
As tech enabled solutions like the aforementioned sensors are designed to unobtrusively monitor wellbeing, the need for the resident’s interaction in sounding the alarm is removed, allowing carers to more accurately prioritise care provision where it is most needed and give residents the chance to live more independent lives.
Not only does technology have the potential to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of care services, but because carers are not spread so widely in their efforts to monitor wellbeing, resources can be reallocated as necessary and greater investment can be made in those areas of social care that require it the most.
Utilising the sensors in conjunction with pendant alarms, therefore, would not only strengthen the level of monitoring a person receives, but also remove the overreliance that such solutions place on human interaction.
Barriers to success
The time has come, therefore, for the social care sector to replace many of its outdated processes with digital alternatives that are tried and tested as a means of providing better outcomes for patients that can free up valuable time, money and resources.
Unfortunately, however, technology adoption has been relatively slow throughout the care sector to date, with a report by The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services [ADASS] and the TEC Services Association [TSA] highlighting the major digital skills gap among care professionals as a primary factor for the poor uptake.
The same report called for directors of adult social care to make their services more proactive and preventative by collaborating with service providers and manufacturers so that data from devices can be used by the social care workforce and carers to identify people with needs, and put solutions in place before they reach crisis.
Therefore, if tech is to become truly successful as a solution to the social care challenges that the UK faces, providers need to recognise its value and ensure that conditions are put in place for the organisations that they run to adopt new, digitally-led ways of operating.
These are undoubtedly difficult times for the care sector as the pandemic continues to disrupt services and hit the budgets of providers hard, but unless the industry acts now to future proof itself through digital transformation, it is liable to experience a very different kind of epidemic in years to come.
Without action, carers will be completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people whose wellbeing they are entrusted with, but IoT tech could hold the power to lighten the load for them significantly and empower the elderly and vulnerable to retain their independence for as long as possible.
As a low cost and versatile solution that offers views of both historical and real-time data, technology has boundless potential to supplement existing, effective yet flawed solutions and is more than fit for purpose in delivering quality integrated social care provision in the 21st century.