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A changing landscape for digital solutions in social care

Daniel Casson from Care England shares how the use of digital tools in social care has been impacted by COVID-19 and what the future looks like.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly caused many to rapidly uptake technologies they otherwise might not have done.

Over the past three months, digital solutions have become the normal way of life for many people working in care, and for the people being supported.

The pressures of working in a COVID-19 world have mobilised people into action in a way not previously witnessed, and people have been emboldened to question the way care interacts with health and the statutory bodies (NHS, Department of Health and Social Care and the Care Quality Commission). The scales have fallen from people’s eyes due to the intense and urgent need for:

  • New ways to connect with families and health and care professionals.
  • Ways to record data to inform the situation inside a care organisation, as well as the situation in the local area and nationally.
  • Integrated remote monitoring solutions.

We are still in the relatively early days of COVID-19, and so there is still time to learn from the experience of the past three months, to improve the current situation and to inform current and future best practice.

Connecting people

The first realisation in lockdown was that people would not be able to have visitors, and so care homes had to mobilise digitally to help people keep in touch. The digital contribution has been immense, with IT managers becoming urgent hardware procurement specialists, purchasing tablets, iPads and laptops to ensure residents can at least be seen by their families. Many care home operators have mobilised non-care staff to work as liaison officers supporting stretched care staff.

The NHS has opened NHSmail to all care providers, and, in residential care, 11,000 of the 15,000 care homes in England now have access to secure email, which in turn gives them access to Microsoft Teams. This has allowed two of the most important interactions in a residential care setting to happen online: medication instruction from pharmacists and GP consultations.

This means that many of the obstacles in the pathway between health and care have now been cleared. What we in the sector have been trying to achieve for the past three years has happened overnight, due to a collective effort to ensure care homes are included in the health and social care continuum. This is an example of a situation where COVID-19 has been the key to unlocking digital engagement.

Vital data

People working in health and care have realised that lack of data and poor data systems have cost lives. There are many accounts of people being discharged from health facilities into social care without full disclosure of the situation, whether the person is new to a care home or a returning resident. When the scale of the pandemic became apparent the initial focus was on clearing hospital beds to create extra capacity, and a typical report from a care home in March or April states:

“Resident AA admitted to BB hospital with symptoms unrelated to COVID-19, tested positive whilst in hospital. We were not informed, consequently the home remained open putting other residents at risk.”

The glaring lack of interconnectedness between care homes and health facilities has been laid bare, and it has become all too apparent that this lack of interconnectedness has cost lives.
So, what is happening? The NHS has realised the scale of the problem, and NHSX is now fully focused on ensuring care homes and social care have recourse to the digital infrastructure, hardware and training to ensure that care and health have the opportunity to be connected.

Emerging technologies

The next area which has seen a great leap forward is remote monitoring. There is a plethora of remote monitoring tools in the market, and those being used in healthcare and homecare are now being mobilised in residential care. The pace of uptake has been breath-taking, and new technologies which have had trouble gaining a foothold have become commonplace.

For example, the Norwegian company, Hepro is working with Graham Care Group to integrate the following functions in one platform: remote patient care, alerting and alarms, GPS localisation, video supervision and communication, online visits, fall detection, acoustic monitoring, medicine dispensing, nurse call/alarm and integration with electronic care planning modules. Moreover, in COVID-19 times, the system can be installed from a remote location. This last point has been a revelation: the costly mobilisation of engineers and installers to a location has been minimised, empowering local operators to take control of their own systems.

Another forward-looking company, Ally Cares is working with care home providers across the UK to remotely install their AI-powered monitoring system. Using their system, staff are alerted via the Ally app on their smartphones to when residents are in need of care.

This removes the need to carry out regular checks giving staff back 40% of their valuable time, whilst also significantly reducing the number of falls and hospital admissions. They are notably involved in an NHS Digital Pathfinders project, aimed at promoting widescale adoption of digital solutions.

The project, with Friends of the Elderly and care planning software provider, KareInn, delivers an interoperable, integrated solution to further improve staff ability to give outstanding care at the right time.

Friends of the Elderly’s Chief Executive, Steve Allen said, ‘The ability to monitor remotely day and night via Ally Cares’ integrated solution is a huge benefit to our teams who are under additional pressure due to COVID-19. The integrated systems are a solid asset which helps them to continue to safeguard the health and wellbeing of our residents.’

These examples are just two of many in the care sector where the power of remote monitoring is becoming apparent.

Work is underway

As well as the individual items above, the NHS has really shifted gear in promoting digital engagement in care. NHSX had started its work with the care sector before COVID-19 hit, and it has redoubled and accelerated its engagement. It has sourced Wi-Fi deals for care operators, started sourcing hardware and validating tech solutions and shown a willingness to listen to the sector as never before.

Its realisation of its duty to provide the infrastructure, and potentially the curated ecosystem, into which tech solutions can fit will have a real impact. The need for guidance and standards is being co-ordinated with the Professional Record Standards Body (PRSB) and the work of setting standards and ensuring the person is at the centre of all developments is starting to take shape.

The last three months have seen an acceleration in digital adoption, and, in spite of the very tough situation in care, there is real hope that out of adversity is coming a new, valuable way of working. The challenge now is to maintain the momentum and ensure traction for these new solutions to change the care and health landscape.

Daniel Casson is Digital Development Executive at Care England. Email: dcasson@careengland.org.uk Twitter: @CareEngDigital

How have you used digital solutions to help you through COVID-19? Let us know by commenting on this article.

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