The Future of Social Care: What Role Should Technology Play?

Demos recently published The Care Commitment, a report written by Danny Kruger MP. In this report, he presents ideas for what a new system of social care might look like going forward.

While the report is not particularly focused on technology, The Care Commitment does raise an interesting example of how new digital tools have been used to meet care needs during the pandemic. By deploying an AI tool developed by a social enterprise called the Tribe Project, North Yorkshire County Council was able to connect 300 of their staff with voluntary opportunities, such as delivering food, collecting prescriptions or providing company to socially isolated people. Ultimately, over 1000 vulnerable people received help through this new tool: a clear example of technology helping to enhance the provision of social care.

Of course, new technologies are already being used to reduce costs and deliver better care for people in the social care sector. In our 2018 report, The Carers’ Covenant, we found that UK care homes were already adopting monitors and sensors to care for their residents, while more advanced robotic tools were becoming increasingly common internationally. Indeed, NHS Digital has a specific programme designed to trial new kinds of technology in the care home sector. And naturally, the pandemic has accelerated this trend, as the use of video conferencing and new tools which provide contact-free forms of interaction has risen sharply in recent months. But what role should technology play in the future of social care?

 

New technology can benefit individuals and staff in the social care sector

It’s easy to propose ‘new technology’ as the solution to any number of policy problems. But what exactly can technology do to improve the social care sector?

First, new technologies provide an important way to extend independent living. Very simple digital tools can make everyday tasks much easier: people with limited mobility can use smart technologies like Hive to adjust heating remotely, or use voice-activated systems to control their lights. These tools can also support carers, enabling them to check in on relatives or patients and provide remote support, where other commitments mean they can’t be physically present to help.

More health-focused tools offer useful benefits too. Monitoring technologies, for example, can detect health changes in real time, identifying warning signs and flagging these with carers. This wouldn’t just increase the speed at which medical emergencies can be addressed, it can also free care workers from repetitive administrative tasks like logging and monitoring health metrics, enabling them to spend more time interacting with those they care for. In short, technology can create space for more time to be spent on the everyday human connections that are central to care. 

More advanced forms of technology could also be used to support those in need of care. In The Carers’ Covenant, we talked about an upcoming trial by universities in the UK and Italy, looking specifically at the impact of caring robots on the wellbeing of care home residents. Fast forward to today: the results of this trial show that robots that provide conversation and companionship alongside the work of human carers “can improve mental health and have the potential to reduce loneliness in older people.” We still need more research into this complex topic, but the evidence from this trial – the largest of its kind – provides us with some indication of what the future of social care could look like. We could imagine human carers, aided by novel forms of technology like these caring robots, helping to reduce loneliness and provide better support to those in need of care.

 

But there’s stigma around new technology in this field – we should work with people to understand what they want from the future of social care

There is, naturally, an instinctive concern around some of these developments. Many of us are deeply troubled by the prospect of robots replacing care workers. Research by the European Commission found that 86% of EU citizens would feel uncomfortable with robots providing care to our elderly parents. This is also reflected in our own research for the The Carers’ Covenant, with one carer arguing that: “Robots and technology and Facetime and Skype have got its place but you can’t get away from human interaction.” We ask ourselves: why should we use robots and technology to provide care, when care is so very human, so reliant on empathy and personal connection? 

These are justifiable concerns and they cannot simply be brushed aside as we pursue the next shiny piece of technology. Instead, we need to involve the public in discussions about the future of social care, to understand what role people are comfortable with technology playing. 

This would involve bringing together carers and those receiving support, to discuss how technology could best help them and where it is better avoided. This should also mean a commitment to funding further trials of caring robots, seeking to better understand public views about the uses and limitations of these tools, rather than trying to push on and ignore them.

The future of social care is not just about the development of cutting-edge tools or the creation of exciting new technologies. It must also involve a renewed commitment to engaging with the public, to understanding what people want from the future of the social care system and the role we all see technology playing within it.