Natasha Carlyle
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Why digital social care?

A 2016 government report projects that nearly one in seven people in the UK will be over 75 years old by 2040, nearly 10 million compared with just 5 million in 2019. This is a vast pool of experience and wisdom. It also implies adaptations to workplaces, to the economy (where working age people might be a smaller proportion of the economy) and a need to offer support to greater numbers of people we class as ‘disabled’ by having difficulty with Activities of Daily Living – who can be of any age but will include 1 in 12 who are frail.

Life expectancy has been increasing faster than healthy life expectancy, meaning time in poor health has increased (leading to a government target for increasing healthy life expectancy by five years).

Although this overall statistic hides lots of variation, the demand on our hospitals and social care system is set to grow over the next few decades and there is a role for any solution which can support those living longer lives to do so independently as long as possible, not only to relieve the inevitable increasing costs on our healthcare system but to enable people to remain in the home environment.

We are all aware of the effect that Covid-19 has had, it figuratively brought the health and care systems to their knees. Increased demand was coupled with difficulty in reaching those who were self isolating, and conforming to social-distancing restrictions for in-person visits.

Remote social care solutions can help with social isolation

The pandemic prompted the UK National Health Service to incorporate remote consultations as a way of reducing the risk of infection to staff and patients. UK Health Minister Matt Hancock said of England ‘we have moved to a principle of digital first in primary care and with outpatients, unless there are clinical or practical reasons, all consultations should be done by telemedicine.’ General Practitioners in Scotland and Wales have also introduced telephone, video and online consultations. 

There is more to be done, particularly in the case of patients and service users who have limited access and/or ability to use technology. We need innovative solutions that bridge the digital divide and bring the benefits of digital healthcare to ‘hard to reach’ groups. 

Technology enabled care (TEC) lets families and carers improve the support they offer. Substitutes for physical contact fall a long way short (as we experience when trying to interact from behind perspex screens) of the full human touch, detected by senses below the level of consciousness like feel or odour, but during difficult times digital care can help. With vulnerable people isolating and potentially new pandemics in the future, the UK government’s Adult Social Care winter plan highlights the necessity of TEC, “improved technology and digital support have also made it easier for people with care needs to stay connected with their loved ones”. Leaders in the TEC field have called for more investment in remote care to protect vulnerable independent people. 

Solutions with behavioural concepts in mind

One example, Ethel, is an innovative touchscreen tablet that allows families and carers to stay in touch with their loved ones, via use of an ‘always-on’, large screen that enhances independent living and enables remote care. Its tablet has a simple to use interface, specifically designed for those unfamiliar with technology that allows the user to get in touch with a pre-set list of contacts like family members, a carer or doctor simply by tapping the screen. Such wraparound care offers additional functionality like medication reminders, exercise reminders. and alerts to family or carers if a user doesn’t respond to prompts. 

Designed by CEO of Connected Care Solutions Deepak Samson, the Ethel was inspired by a neighbour of the same name who struggled to stay in contact with friends and family who lived far away. Not only can Ethel provide users with a means to reduce social isolation, it  also gives peace of mind to family and carers through the remote medication management feature which reduces the need for in-person care, essentially cutting social care costs to the health system as a whole. 

In hindsight, the Ethel meets the leading behavioural principles of the EAST (Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely) framework for making solutions successful. It is not just easy to use, but allows for social interaction. It’s timely, given that it can be used at any time of the day, and it is attractive, presented in a beautifully designed large screen which can still fit on a night table. These features are already helping adoption by a population who would otherwise not have used technology, enabling behaviour change.

Since its launch in 2016, the Ethel has been used to help build a better patient experience and increase efficiency across various NHS Trusts, Local Authorities, Domiciliary Care agencies and Housing Associations in the UK demonstrating the appeal of this and related solutions.

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