Assistive technology in a reformed social care system

We wrote in 2019 about the role of assistive technology in how it could help social care users.  A new Commission by two care bodies has now been launched to explore the role of assistive technology in a reformed social care system.  The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the weaknesses and frailties of the UK social care system.  What role could assistive technology play in creating a more robust social care system for the future?

The Commission has been launched by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) and the TEC Services Association (TSA), and will provide its final report in March 2021.  It is expected that this report will include practical recommendations on how to make use of everyday devices, data insights and specialist technology to extend people’s healthy lifespans and enrich their lives.

One of the key motivators for use of assistive technology in social care here must be cost.  Back in December 2019 the Conservative Party pledged as part of its general election manifesto to prioritize social care reform via cross party talks and increase the funding care of the social care system.  That was of course before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK.  As the country recovers slowly from the COVID-19 pandemic, a way of maximising funds for social care may well be by ensuring people can live at home for longer. 

Studies show that a person living at home with the assistance of domiciliary carers or family members is generally cheaper than the fees of a care home or nursing home.  Assistive technology can mean a person can live at home for longer, which as well as representing a costs saving, is likely to be preferable to moving into a care home.  A recent study by the Circle Group from Sheffield University (found here) reviews various areas in which digital technology can facilitate and deliver social care at home.  For example telecare services or personal alarm systems whereby a person can alert emergency services easily from home have been in use for many years.  The first basic telecare systems have been augmented and developed over time meaning for example that family members can be alerted to movements of their loved one via an app, or the system will sense smoke or excess water in the property. 

The report by the Circle Group notes however that there has been a lot of funding of technology over the years but often prototypes for assistive technology are lacking in research and take a long time to come to the commercial market.  In addition, whilst systems such as Alexa and Siri and smartphones can be potentially used to augment care at home, they are not specifically adapted for this purpose. 

The report of the Circle Group and the future findings of the Commission will certainly make for interesting reading.  It remains to be seen whether the recommendations will be taken up by the UK government or adopted by the care industry.  As we have previously highlighted, the use of any devices or tech needs to be carefully considered and risk assessed as suitable according to each user’s needs. 

And whilst the use of technology to augment care at home is appealing on a purely costs basis, the downside is the lack of human contact for those that do require care at home.  The recent restrictions on care home visits during the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how important social contact is for care home residents.  Domiciliary care providers making use of new assistive technology should be careful to ensure the role of human contact from carers is safeguarded. 

Further details of the Commission can be found here.

Jennifer Johnston, Associate, BLM

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