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What has 2021 meant for digital social care?

Earlier this year, techUK set out our ambition to provide an environment in which members and stakeholders could come together to achieve a collaborative approach to social care. Since we published this mission statement, we have seen social care, and in particular the potential of digital transformation in this sector, move further up the political and public agenda, receiving welcome legislative attention.

However, as discussed at our recent roundtable on Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) and Social Care, social care remains a fair distance from achieving parity of esteem with health and the NHS, an issue that the Government has said it will seek to address in the upcoming Integration White Paper.

As we look ahead to 2022 and the priorities for techUK’s Social Care Working Group, we have reflected on what the elevation in status and various legislative changes, including the recent White Paper: People at the Heart of Care, have meant for social care, and in particular for efforts to bring about digital transformation within this sector.

  • Impact of the COVID-10 pandemic

​Largely out of necessity, the COVID-19 pandemic brought huge digital transformation in social care, including the use of risk stratification products, legal rights to processing data, home monitoring technology, digital discharge software, and many more.

The challenge now is how to draw on this increased appetite for digital transformation in social care and maintain momentum in the sector, whilst balancing challenges around capacity and funding. NHSX recently commissioned reviews of the current extent of digital technologies and skills in social care, finding that the pandemic had led to an increase in both the use of digital technology and opportunities to develop digital skills. Looking at how such technology could be scaled up, the findings support recommendations for accelerating digital transformation across five themes:

  1. Involving end-users in developing a sector-wide vision for digitising adult social care (ASC)
  2. Developing co-produced standards and systems to support implementation of this vision
  3. Raising awareness and knowledge of digital technologies across both the ASC sector and among end-users
  4. Improving access to funding and procurement support for digital investments
  5. Providing training and support for the digital skills needed by user groups in the ASC sector

The review identified the main factor that would enable digital technology suppliers to help overcome barriers to the adoption and diffusion of digital technologies across the sector as a “clear and comprehensive vision for digital technology in ASC from government, with aligned government policies, data industry standards and enhanced interoperability”.

techUK strongly welcomes this recommendation from NHSX and looks forward to working with Government and the NHS to deliver such a vision. In 2022 our Working Group will seek to build on the momentum generated by the use of digital during the pandemic and by subsequent recommendations such as these, sharing learnings and best practice from the past 19 months.

  • The potential of digital transformation for workforce

The past year has seen a greater appreciation for the work of both paid and unpaid carers, as well as a larger focus on the role digital technologies can play in easing some the workforce burden and helping to tackle challenges around career opportunities.

The NHSX review mentioned above, found that access to and use of technology was lower among care workers than other groups in the workforce, and that awareness and knowledge of care-specific digital technology was variable. However, it also found that among the workforce there was openness to using digital technology more widely, as well as a desire from many frontline staff to develop their digital skills, coupled with a recognition that this needs to become one of the essential parts of their careers

A key pillar of the recently published white paper, People at the Heart of Care, looks at using digital technology to make the provision of social care more efficient for the workforce e.g. using digital social care records to improve transfers of care. The white paper recognises the importance of increasing confidence of staff in the appropriate use of technology, and the necessity of offering support to care providers to adopt these technologies. The Government has set out plans to fund implementation support within each ICS, investing in both infrastructure and skills to rapidly digitise social care. Encouragingly, the white paper explicitly states that these changes should ensure a more equal partnership with the NHS and achieve wider ambitions for joined-up care around the individual.

Our members have expressed hopes that in light of recent developments, social care will finally be viewed as comparable to the entirety of the NHS, rather than just one area, and that as we move towards true integration of health and care we would see a greater focus on the citizen and their journey. We therefor welcome this pillar of the whitepaper and look forward to working with care providers to ensure digital technology has a positive impact on social care staff.

  • The move towards integration and a population-based approach

Digital technologies providers are undoubtedly excited about the possibilities presented by the advent of ICSs and the shift to a population-based approach to health. ICSs are set to both challenge and improve the ways in which health and social care have worked together in the past and will hopefully put the community at the forefront of this work.

At our recent roundtable, members identified several areas of concern when it comes around integrating health and care through these new systems:

  • It is currently very difficult to see the cost of care across the system. To effectively make the case for investment in digital technology this needs to improve.
  • There is a need to educate procurement about digital technology and to encourage greater elasticity of thought. To speed up the movement from pilots to mainstreaming of tech projects, as well as reduce the need for repeat pilots, a more agile approach is needed.  
  • There is a need for greater clarity about where ownership and funding lie for the overall digitisation agenda, although we recognise that the merger of NHS Digital and NHSX into NHS England’s Transformation Directorate may help to provide this direction.
  • There is a significant challenge presented by the varying levels of maturity when it comes to relationships between social care and ICSs across the country. The technologies available for collaboration are numerous, but a step change is needed away from transactional relationships and towards genuine partnerships.

We are delighted to see that suppliers are starting to be seen as true partners to the system, given the value that they can bring to the table, and look forward to the publication of ‘What Good Looks Like’ for social care technology in 2022. Alongside a social care technology blueprint, this will provide a good starting point to realising the ambition of digital transformation by showing what is possible.

The 10-year vision set out in the People at the Heart of Care white paper, states that for industry and innovators there is a significant opportunity to “develop the next generation of care technologies in order to meet the demands of global demographic trends and ageing populations in line with the ambitions set out in the UK Life Sciences Vision.”

We were delighted to see that to achieve this, the Government will be co-producing a roadmap of priorities with local authorities, the voluntary sector and citizens who need care, as well as launching a new scheme to test and scale ideas. We also warmly welcome the commitment to establish an "adult social care data framework by spring 2022, setting out what data the sector needs to collect, the purpose of those collections and the standards it is collected to".

What will techUK need to do in 2022?

techUK will continue to showcase how digital can be harnessed to improve social care outcomes by working closely with our members and public sector partners across NHSX and the future Transformation Directorate in NHS England, as well as ADASS and the Local Government Association. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get it right for social care. We need to make sure that the new status social care is currently being attributed is not just a label. The NHSX review mentioned above has called for opportunities for digital technology suppliers to learn about the needs of the ASC sector and bridge the divide between the sectors.

The much-anticipated People at the Heart of Care White Paper provides a good foundation for the delivery of digital transformation. We look forward to working with members and public sector partners to realise the ambition of a truly digitised social care system.

If you are interested in joining our Social Care Working Group, please sign-up here or  email or to find out more.  

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