Cementing the care sector in the digital age

Professor Vic Rayner OBE, CEO, National Care Forum

A year to forget, and at the same time most definitely a year to remember. There are few things that people would reflect on 2020 that could be identified as positive, but the drive around digital transformation has, I would argue, been one of them. Whilst I have been regularly called to account in print and broadcast media over the last year for what has been happening behind the scenes in care settings across the country, this story of change has not yet hit the headlines!

Casting my mind back, 2020 started with the relatively newly emergent NHSX, feeling it’s way alongside the social care sector. NHSX was there to set national policy and best practice for health and care technology, digital and data and it was working with the sector to think through how and where the biggest and most impactful changes to social care might be achieved through technology. In the drive to transform, we were consistently hitting barriers around Information Governance, investment requirements, workforce skills and the lack of interoperable systems and data sets. However, in March 2020 as Covid-19 struck, it rapidly became evident that not only was the technology going to become an enabler for managing care planning and interaction with health colleagues, but would also be an essential life line for people to communicate with friends and families.

The adoption of technology accelerated exponentially over the coming months. During this period, a growing number of care homes adopted care planning software and sped up their onboarding programmes as it became obvious that services able to capture data electronically provided an essential level of reassurance for organisations that paper-based system could not provide. Extra care and supported living services utilised growing levels of on-line activities and engagement to support those isolated throughout lockdown. Families invested in tablets and assistants such as Alexa to keep connected with family members who were receiving domiciliary care at home, shielding and away from family and friends. During this period, NCF ran our very successful Hubble programme, giving care providers the opportunities to visit virtual hubs showcasing fantastic digital innovations in situ. It proved extremely popular as providers sought to learn from each other about key steps to implementation including the critical role of leadership, culture and training.

In addition, vital connections were formed between health and care organisations, enabling the rapid transfer of data between services. This enabled swifter discharge and admission from hospital, ensuring that critical information about an individual’s needs could be accessed by all responsible for their health and care, wherever the individual happened to be. In addition, video conferencing took hold in the absence of face to face visits, and whilst not suitable for all, enabled more routine preventative assessment to once again become possible. There were some relaxations around information governance which facilitated these changes, but even without that implied permission, the digital rollercoaster was definitely heading down the tracks.

Where does that leave us now? I do believe there is no going back. However, it will take careful management to move this from a crisis response to a strategic approach to transformation. The much anticipated focus on social care reform will need to properly articulate how digital will be embedded in social care provision of the future. We need to see it front and centre of both a workforce plan and a ten year strategy for the sector. This must capture the potential for now, and demonstrate how the government will incentivise investment in innovation in care that will prepare for a future where citizens who receive care have the same level of access and opportunity to fully utilise technology to support independent living as the rest of the population. The digital divide between those providing and receiving care and the rest of the population shows signs of narrowing. However, it will take strong and future focused leadership to cement the care sector firmly in the digital age.




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