Tech-Enabled Compassion: Exploring the Impact of Digital Solutions in Adult Social Care

Sam Hannah

June 2, 2023

The Health Secretary, Steve Barclay, was in Japan last week touting the UK’s technologically innovative spirit particularly within the NHS and he made some excellent points about how the health system in the UK is adapting to newly available technologies in order to drive down costs, improve service efficiency, and take some of the strain off the already overstretched workforce. However, we wanted to highlight where there is most certainly room for improvement, particularly in the Adult Social Care sector.

Now, you may scoff at this and say, “Adult Social Care hasn’t been addressed by a single UK government in decades, let alone this one, so obviously there obviously won’t have been any progress here”, and that is true to a degree. Where that truth starts to wane is in the realisation of just how much tech there is around these days which could be implemented almost painlessly and would improve the situation infinitely, without some grand manifesto plan from one of the political parties actually being implemented.

Before getting into some specifics, it’s worth noting that some of these technologies will already be in use across some parts of the industry in the UK. Due to the fact that 95% of care home beds are provided by the private sector, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that some of these practices are in place. However, as you’ll be aware, the adult social care sector is in even more of a financial and organisational predicament than the NHS, with the CQC (Care Quality Commission) report in 2022 stating that the system was “unable to operate effectively”, so the need for technology to help alleviate some of the issues, be they in a “sticking plaster” manner or a more long-term one, is abundantly clear.

The first one, which has been adopted across many industries already, is the electronic staff rota. With many care homes still using analogue methods to inform their staff of their work obligations, this can lead to shift mix ups and having the incorrect number of staff scheduled to work on a specific day. The fact that a disorganised workforce will inevitably lead to a reduction in satisfactory patient care doesn’t need to be spelled out, but this would be a very good first step in addressing that issue.

Now, I am fully aware of the passion, or lack thereof, that an electronic rota system inspires, so some slightly more interesting tech that could be utilised in the Adult Social Care sector would be facial recognition. This would create an electronic record of all patients and staff on the premises and alert the necessary individual(s) of when either a patient can’t be located or a member of staff hasn’t turned up, therefore reducing the time it takes to be sorted out and, in the case of staff, enabling a replacement to be called up more quickly. This could also be used in the home’s entry system, allowing only those who have access permission into the building and preventing those who shouldn’t be leaving it from doing so.

In the interest of speeding up the care process, digital care planning could also be introduced. At the moment, patients’ care plans are often kept on physical documents in their rooms or at home, depending on where they receive their care, along with prescriptions and other mostly hand-written assets. With this comes a number of potential risks which have been identified in the past and cause up to 22,300 deaths every year in the UK. Digitising this entire process would remove the human error aspect and make these plans and records accessible to both patient and carer on demand. This would drastically reduce these risks and simultaneously lead to speedier care; not to mention the cost saving it would bring about in the long-run.

Now for the exciting stuff.

One of the most genius, yet strangely obvious, innovations in the medical field that has recently emerged is a digital medicine sorting system, which tracks inventory, determines which medications go to which patient, and ensures that all proper procedures are followed. In the UK at the moment, it’s estimated that there are 237 million medication errors made every year, and about 54% of those are attributed to administration of medication in hospitals and care homes. It’s therefore vital that this is rectified as swiftly as humanly possible (pun intended). This digital medicine sorting system would be operated in large part by an AI-powered sorting machine, which is fed the medication and sorts it into individual packs with unique barcodes pertaining to each patient. Then, through a system of carousels and secure automated medical cabinets, the nurse or carer would be able to look up the patient’s name and see that they require a certain dosage at a certain time, which will then be made available to them to give to the patient, leaving almost no room for error. This could again save millions in costs in the longer term and immediately reduce the risk to patients of receiving incorrect medication.

All in all, it’s a wonder why the Adult Social Care sector hasn’t cottoned on to more of these recent technological advancements. From all the ones mentioned above to simply putting voice assistants, such as Alexa, in patients’ dwellings in order to alleviate the issue of loneliness in particularly elderly patients, as some professionals in the field have suggested, and many more, there is ample scope for Adult Social Care to be improved in this country without the large-scale empty pledges often made by politicians in a campaign. Though that is most certainly still required at some stage, all we can do for now is improve what’s in front of us, and a move towards digitisation would certainly achieve that.