‘Data’ has to be one of the dullest words in the English language. Unless you’re a policy wonk, a business analyst or a scientist, you’re not likely to get too excited when you see it in a sentence (and it’ll score you just five points in Scrabble, so don’t bother). Yet it is now quite the hot topic in adult social care, an important marker of a change in attitude to adult social care by Government and – potentially – a route to increased influence. So bear with me.
Last month, the Government published its plans for integration of health and care in England and, as a bonus, added a few additional measures specifically about social care. One of these was around data, where the Government is promising to ‘remedy gaps in available data’ in key areas such as hours of care services provided, cost per person and financial flows to providers and workforce.
This is quite the turnaround. There had been no shortage of laments to the lack of data before the pandemic arrived but no one in central Government was really listening.
So: why is data now such a hot ticket and should the social care sector welcome the focus or not?
Simply put, it matters now because of the experience of COVID-19. Facing a crisis in care homes, the Government realised it had little information to understand the scale or nature of that crisis. Though urgent measures were put in place, by the autumn the taskforce set up to get social care through winter was still saying, ‘One of the biggest challenges facing the country and the social care sector, while responding to its biggest public health crisis for more than 100 years, is the availability of timely and reliable data and information.’
The already-planned White Paper about the NHS and integrated care offered an immediate opportunity to respond and the social care data provisions were piggybacked onto much broader measures about NHS leadership and integration.
The White Paper has no detail about the additional demands that might be put on providers and local authorities to capture it, though it does at least acknowledge concerns by promising that data will be ‘collected through provider systems, reducing reporting burdens by extracting from existing data sets and sharing with multiple users’. However, assuming a suitable compromise can be reached, we should welcome the demand for two reasons.
Firstly, it is a recognition from Government that adult social care – particularly (but not limited to) care homes – is part of the health and care infrastructure of the country and has strategic, national value. That was certainly not the case pre-pandemic.
Secondly, as the White Paper says, with better, client-level data, it will be possible to make links to health outcomes, to understand the lifetime cost of care, join up care more effectively with health and plan for future population health needs. That in turn offers an opportunity to demonstrate the value of adult social care in terms that Government, and particularly the Treasury, understands.
And, if we have faith in the value that social care can bring, that has to be a good thing.