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Digital assistance: The dedicated space supporting providers during the pandemic

Run by social care providers, for social care providers, Digital Social Care is a dedicated space to provide advice and support to the social care sector on technology and data protection. Here, Katie Thorn of Digital Social Care tells us more about its impact during the pandemic.

Digital Social Care works in partnership with NHS Digital, NHSX and Skills for Care to support the digital journey of the care sector.

We believe that digital innovation gives us the opportunity to:

  • Improve the quality of care.
  • Be transparent and accountable.
  • Support individuals to remain independent for longer.
  • Improve the quality and efficiency of information sharing between health and social care.

The key features of Digital Social Care

Since we launched in June 2018, we have provided support in a variety of different ways, including written and video guides; working with care providers to create success stories on how they are using various kinds of technology and sharing lessons learned and good practice; and speaking directly to care providers either one-on-one or at local provider forums around the country.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear to us that the way people were working was about to rapidly change. As a team, we considered what we could do to support the sector and decided we could create a helpdesk to provide ad hoc technical support. The helpdesk is open from 9.00am to 5.00pm, Monday to Friday, by email or by phone.

Many of the people who contacted us had questions about NHS COVID-19 response initiatives, such as the fast-track roll-out of NHSmail and the adoption of Capacity Tracker. We wanted to be available to the sector to provide instant help, but we also wanted to understand the impact that these technologies were having on care staff and the people they support. By creating the helpdesk, we could keep track of queries coming in, which allowed us and our partners to be responsive in developing guidance.

From April to June 2020, we partnered with the Institute of Public Care, Oxford Brookes University on a rapid research project looking at the adoption of technology during the first wave of the pandemic. This report relied on anonymised aggregate data from helpdesk callers, as well as one-on-one interviews with a small group of care providers. This allowed us to feed back on what was working well, and what issues needed to be resolved without adding another burden onto the sector. This report and other feedback from providers led to the development of additional resources, for example the videos we now host on how to use a range of features of NHSmail and the guidance we co-produced with Skills for Care on how technology can help during COVID-19. An unexpected development for us was that software companies started getting in touch asking how they could help, so we started to compile a list of companies that had developed free resources or were offering their technology for free during the pandemic.

Direct contact with care providers over the last 12 months has not only allowed us to work to unpick some of the barriers to adopting technology in the care sector, but has also let us highlight some of the incredible work and innovation which has been taking place. Some solutions have been relatively ‘low tech’, with care providers incorporating hearing loops into outdoor visitor pods to allow for better visits or using YouTube and other streaming platforms to maintain access to services. Others have been moving wholescale to electronic recruitment and training, adopting AI technology as an early warning system for a range of health issues or to monitor and identify pain levels in people living with dementia.

Elsewhere, people supported by Brandon Trust, a learning disability charity, have been using an app which provides video content to help people with learning disabilities to develop independent living skills. Hannah Godden, a support worker for Brandon Trust, said, ‘Each individual is able to look through different everyday tasks and see what they feel they could do with more support with. This could be something like making a sandwich, cleaning the bathroom, or securing their house when they go to bed. Visual aids can go a long way to helping support someone. It gives the people we support an extra tool alongside the help from a support worker.’

Heathfield Residential Home in Warrington, Cheshire, uses an app that can tell you if a resident is in pain through facial analysis and an assessment at the point-of-care. Louise Rowley, owner of Heathfield Residential Home, said, ‘Residents often find it difficult to verbalise their pain and this seemed like a tool we could use to help support us. We wanted something that would confirm any concerns we had about someone’s pain levels and highlight any deterioration.’ Louise learnt about an app called PainChek, which is a pain assessment tool that analyses a person’s face through the camera of a smart device to see where the resident is on the pain scale.

What’s next for Digital Social Care?

In September 2020, we conducted research looking at barriers and enablers to adopting digital care planning software. As part of this research, we surveyed 1,200 front line care staff and senior managers. We asked senior managers, ‘What help would you find most useful if you were to adopt electronic care planning software?’ 86% indicated that they would like ‘advice on what care planning software can do and how to use it’ and 80% said that they would like ‘support from others who have implemented similar systems’. We feel this is a strong indicator that the type of support we can offer is of use to the sector.

Our research findings, and the positive feedback we get from people who contact us, mean we have no plans to close the helpdesk down. Indeed, we are continuing to develop the helpdesk and the rest of our website, so that we can be responsive to the changing needs of the sector over the coming months and years. To this end, we have just launched our new support programme: Better Security, Better Care. This is a national and local support programme to help adult social care providers to store and share information safely and to get the basics of data and cyber security right. We have a knowledge base of support materials and will be available to help with any queries and to link people in with local support networks across England.

We are also looking at what more we can do to provide support around not just care planning software, but all types of technology. This is why we are delighted to be hosting the Hubble Project. The Hubble Project – developed by the National Care Forum with funding from NHS Digital’s Digital Pathfinders Programme – enables care providers to learn from others who have introduced technology. Based on a series of virtual visits to three innovative care providers, the Hubble Project has now published a series of films, information packs, templates and guides. Senior leaders, managers, care staff and family carers share their experiences of planning, implementing and using technology.

Key learnings and looking to the future

The last 12 months have seen a step-change in the adoption of technology in social care. Particularly when we consider the use of video conferencing, which has become almost ubiquitous as providers worked hard to ensure the people they support could stay in touch with loved ones. There had been steady progress in the adoption of technology in the past, but this leapt ahead during the pandemic and care providers are increasingly aware of the benefits and the barriers to implementation and are considering their own digital strategies. Frankly, the digitisation of the sector is also inevitable, as the people using services and their families will increasingly expect access to the internet and the use of technology.

There is also a national conversation to be had around the use of technology across the health and care sectors. Many people in Government and the NHS, who have long talked about the need for interoperability and joined-up care, now realise the important role that social care services have to play if we are truly to make this a reality. The success of solutions such as the Capacity Tracker, and a pilot on data collection from social care electronic care planning systems by NHS Digital, demonstrated not only the power but also the necessity of good-quality data across the whole system.

The Department of Health and Social Care’s recently published white paper also commits to better integration and is a useful guide for what the future might look like for technology in social care. The white paper proposes legislative changes which could have a significant impact on adult social care providers and the way in which we use technology. Should these be taken forward, I’d like to see the Government consulting with the social care sector and people with lived experience, so that they can be well informed on the scale and impact the proposed changes might have. This would include having clear support for the sector in adapting to any legislative changes.

Similarly, we are awaiting the Government’s Data Strategy for Health and Social Care, which will hopefully include a clear vision of the digital journey for social care with input from providers and people who use services from across the sector. Hopefully, this will also include learnings from the TSA and ADASS report ‘How can technology be truly integrated into adult social care’, which has excellent recommendations for the Government to consider.

At Digital Social Care, we hope to continue to be a place of free, unbiased support for care providers and to increasingly develop our support offering based on the needs of the sector.

Katie Thorn is the Digital Engagement Manager at the Registered Nursing Home Association (RNHA) and Project Manager for Digital Social Care. Email:  Twitter: @DigiSocialCare

How has your care setting embraced technology during the pandemic?

About Katie Thorn

Katie Thorn is the Digital Engagement Manager at the Registered Nursing Home Association (RNHA) and project manager for Digital Social Care, a partnership project between the Care Provider Alliance, Skills for Care and NHS Digital. For social care providers, by social care providers Digital Social Care provides free guidance and support on technology to adult social care providers across England

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