Growing elderly populations and stretched resources means great hope is being placed in technology-enabled care to help citizens to maintain independence and provide support for their carers.
Yet the personal alarms and health monitoring devices that for many are a critical lifeline often rely on outdated technology, the telephone landline. These can be at risk when people forget to check equipment and other devices fail, and are often only effective within close proximity to the home. Current technology that aspires to support more independent living can be restrictive and is starting to look out of place in the UK's 'smartphone' society.
Councils have invested heavily in such analogue telecare solutions. But these investments need urgent review if the UK is to deliver care that helps keep people independent for longer in their own homes, and connected to the support networks they need. Digital technology can make this happen, and provide a better, more efficient service that benefits all.
Health and social care providers can benefit from monitoring and caring for people in their own homes in the most efficient way possible. Carers, next of kin, emergency services and housing providers can also use the information that digital platforms can provide, through alarms, location-finding, or video conferencing.
Such approaches are shown to improve rates of self-care, and reduce hospital admissions. Social benefits include reducing isolation, and relieving carer and relative anxiety. Financially, savings could be considerable. In Scotland for example, we have estimated that digitally-enabled remote monitoring could save £15m a year by redirecting resources to those that need it most.
Consumers can see the potential of this approach for themselves and their loved ones. Many go into high street stores to buy their own telecare solutions. Some use phoneline-based systems; others look to mobile and broadband. But a more consistent approach is required so that information, devices and services can share information to support the ambitions of integrated care.
Promising but isolated innovations
Some health bodies and local authorities understand the challenge, and are exploring innovative approaches. These include Dallas projects, that aim to transform current health and social care services into a more citizen led model using assisted living technology. Smart home devices are being used to help keep elderly individuals in touch with carers. Some local authorities are looking to provide digital platforms to support integrated care ambitions.
However such innovations have been isolated, and do not provide the necessary foundations. Council providers trying to meet the demands for improved services and information provision need adequate technical infrastructure to support such initiatives.
As well as technology, the right people need to be involved. NHS England guidance on digital roadmaps requires the involvement of local authorities, but other services, such as housing or emergency services should also play a part.
Meanwhile the Scottish Government is pooling budgets, investing in digital infrastructure and having wide-ranging conversations to help make digitally-enabled integrated care a reality. These are moves in the right direction.
Digital solutions can enable the delivery of multi-agency, person-centred care. The UK is well-placed to lead this drive, but the country needs to work together to make it a reality.