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The UK government has published a 10-year adult social care plan that includes a significant focus on the use of digital technologies to support people receiving care and caregivers.
Announced on 1 December, the long-awaited social care strategy is part of a broader £5.4bn investment plan for social care. It also introduces a cap on the cost of care for adults across residential and home care environments.
To enable the reduction in care costs as well as greater choice, control and support for independent living, the plan includes a £1bn system reform programme that will back initiatives such as the improvement of digital and technological infrastructure.
“We are investing in our country’s future – boosting support to help people live at home with their families for longer and ensuring that health and care work hand in hand so that people get the help they need,” said health and social care secretary Sajid Javid.
Included in the reform is a technology and digitisation initiative, which can receive up to £150m in funding for the next three years. This is aimed at improving quality of care, supporting independent living and helping care staff to prioritise resources. According to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), at least £5m will go towards piloting new ways to help people understand and access the care and support available.
Examples cited by the DHSC on that front include the roll-out of acoustic sensors that monitor movement which are intended to mitigate interruptions in sleep, while allowing carer monitoring and alerts.
The DHSC said the plan also includes updating digital care records “to make sure all caregivers have the latest up-to-date details to provide the best support possible”. The strategy also encompasses an increase to the upper limit of the Disabled Facilities Grant for adaptations such as home technologies to improve options and quality of care.
According to the government, at least 1.7 million people in England are using assistive technologies such as personal alarm systems, as well as as smart devices to help with tasks such as medication reminders and sensor technologies to identify falls in domestic settings.
Reflecting on how digitisation can support the delivery of the social care agenda set out by the DHSC and possibilities for the £150m digital funding, Alice Ainsworth, deputy director for adult social care technology policy at NHSX, said tech can be “embedded seamlessly” into care and support services. “Digital technology is also making the provision of social care more efficient for the workforce,” she added.
Ainsworth pointed out that the recent announcement that NHSX will merge into NHS England and Improvement does not change the proposals around the digitisation of care, and that the merger will strengthen NHSX’s ability to deliver on them.
“The new strategy function in NHS England and Improvement will emphatically continue to include the digital transformation of social care, bringing this agenda into the heart of the new transformation directorate,” she said.
The NHSX chief outlined specific initiatives planned for the coming years, such as a new scheme to test care technologies, which will be scaled when they are proved to be beneficial to people. Priorities in that front include technologies to help prevent urinary tract infections, medication errors and bedsores. NHSX will also investigate tools that “help connect people and support independence and wellbeing”.
Examples cited by Ainsworth of how digitisation has already helped accelerate care provision include e-rostering to improve how care managers handle administrative tasks, as well as better communication between health and care professionals through NHSmail.
Also in relation to technology supporting care operations, the NHSX chief noted that digital social care records have enabled transfers of care and handovers between shifts, while ensuring updated information about people’s care needs. But according to Ainsworth, only 30-40% of care providers are currently digitised.
Going forward, NHSX will work towards ensuring at least 80% of care providers put a digitised care record in place that can connect to a shared care record, and support implementation through integrated care systems. This links to NHSX’s data-focused draft strategy for health and social care, which was published in July 2021.
Also, fibre upgrades will be delivered to care homes that lack basic connectivity. According to Ainsworth, NHSX will engage with government and industry to ensure homecare providers have the infrastructure required to work digitally.
The NHSX chief also noted another priority in the digitisation of social care in the coming years is related to digital learning. The aim is to boost digital skills in social care, including a specific focus on leadership support for decision-makers who can drive cultural change needed for digital transformation at their organisations.