Why technology is key in responding to COVID-19 in social care

The impact of COVID-19 on social care services has been profound. While the crisis is far from over, there are already some clear lessons that can be learned about the role technology has played in helping, and in some cases hindering, the response to COVID-19. These experiences should be harnessed to shape organisations’ use of technology in the post-COVID world.

Technology is not currently widely used in social care. Where it is utilised, for example in telecare services, the technology used can be decades old, relying on analogue dial up connections that restrict care providers’ ability to adapt their services in response to crises. Amongst the issues seen by care providers during the pandemic has been the impact of care staff being unable to work if they are self-isolating, but are otherwise healthy. The technology used by most telecare solutions is not sufficiently flexible to allow these staff to continue to work and take telecare calls when working from home. More modern solutions, using digital technology and Internet connectivity can easily accommodate flexible call handling arrangements, which would allow self-isolating staff to continue to work remotely. This flexibility will also be useful during the next phase of COVID restrictions, reducing the requirement for staff to be office-based and simplifying social distancing arrangements. It can also offer non-COVID related benefits, like providing the capability to use home-based staff for short periods to assist in dealing with call peaks, or to ensure business continuity during severe weather.

Other arrangements put in place as part of the COVID response are likely to offer benefits to care providers and service users if adopted as standard practice. We have seen examples of care providers moving to more proactive and preventative service models. Calling users to check on wellbeing and provide medication reminders can be used in place of some kinds of physical home visits, reducing pressure on homecare. These types of calls, and potentially video sessions in future, can also help in tackling loneliness, which has been an issue that care providers have been tackling even prior to the current COVID shielding restrictions.

The shielding restrictions, and the associated desire to minimise home visits, has highlighted the value of using technology to remotely monitor service users’ activity. These types of monitoring solutions have been available for some time, but the increasing range and sophistication of monitoring devices available, and the potential to monitor using consumer’s own smart home devices, means that use of this form of remote and proactive care is only likely to increase in the post-COVID world. The data available from these devices can also be used to provide preventative care. For example, data analytics can be used to service users who are not drinking enough and so are at risk of UTI, or whose sleep and activity patterns flag potential dementia symptoms. These types of services blur the lines between health and care services and will therefore require a joined-up approach to cope with users’ health and wellbeing.

Nobody would have wanted it to happen this way, but the COVID crisis has acted as a catalyst to highlight the benefits technology can bring to social care. Technology can never replace the need for care staff and the ‘human touch’. However, as demand for care services increases, and cost and staffing challenges remain, technology can play an increasingly important role in helping providers make best use of the resources they have and to improve outcomes for service users by helping provide proactive, preventative, and person-centred care.

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