• Opinion
  • October 16, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 0

How to fix the UK’s broken care system

Opinion: Even the smartest robot is a poor replacement for a human touch

This article was written by Lydia Nicholas, Programme Manager at tech think tank, Doteveryone. 


The UK care system is already in crisis. Now, after years of chronic underinvestment, it’s been pushed beyond the breaking point.

Over 1.2 million people aren’t getting the care they need. Over 100,000 staff are missing, a quarter of home care providers are almost bankrupt, and a third of regions in England have no spare care home beds.

These pressures are only going to grow; lifespans are getting longer, but healthy lifespans aren’t keeping up, so more of us are going to spend more of our lives sick or disabled, needing more support.

How can government relieve these pressures? Local councils including Hampshire and Oxfordshire have been trialling Amazon’s Alexa to help people live independently. It is hoped that these voice assistant technologies can help disabled people and those living with complex conditions by setting up reminders to take medication, switch on lights, open doors and adjust thermostats.

But technology can’t work if there isn’t a human around to install it, log in, input data for a profile and features, to reset it if it crashes, notice that it’s run out of battery, to explain how to use it, or to ensure it fits users’ abilities and needs.

Can technology care for us?

Technology won’t solve problems if we don’t listen to its users about what their problems actually are, and what they need to overcome them.

Voice-assistants designed by able-bodied people don’t take into account users with conditions that affect their lungs and who cannot raise their voice above a whisper. Nor does it consider people who’ve suffered a stroke or who have learning disabilities, and who may not be able to formulate questions in ways the AI understands.

Doteveryone’s latest research, Better Care in the Age of Automation, sets out three key conditions for the foundations needed for any technology in care to be responsibly and effectively deployed.

Doteveryone recommends that NHSX, the new digital arm of the UK’s healthcare system, lead a new national data strategy for social care

These are the data needed to build and measure technology focused on wellbeing; the skills required to use tech to care, and the culture to empower people to adopt and shape technology to their needs.

The development and implementation of technology in social care will be shaped by the data we collect and the targets we set. Current metrics are fragmented and siloed, focused on short term costs and process efficiency, without any view of the impact on real lives and communities. Doteveryone recommends that NHSX, the new digital arm of the UK’s healthcare system, lead a new national data strategy for social care.

This strategy should focus on the wellbeing and productivity of individuals, families and communities and so incentivise the development of technologies for long term benefits.

A bolder vision of care

To get the benefits of new technologies, people on the front line need to be given the skills and autonomy to work with it. We recommend that the Department of Health and Social Care should support the founding of a Royal College for Carers to professionalise the care workforce so they can use technology to augment their vital skills of emotional intelligence and creative problem solving.

And we are not going to see the benefits of tech unless we put power in the hands of older and disabled people and their families. A culture of blame and suspicion has left many afraid to try new technologies in case it jeopardises vital support packages. If they don’t see their own goals, needs, and ideas reflected in the technology available to use they won’t be motivated to adopt them.

The UK is facing its own unique crisis situation in care, but these demographic pressures are global and will require local solutions, adapted to communities’ varying needs

We won’t change culture overnight, but by establishing vanguard Enablement Panels, funded by NHSX and run by and for disabled people, carers and families given the resource and support to shape technology for care, we can make a real difference for those that need it most.

Social care need not be something for individuals to fear and a burden for society to bear.

It can be a vital part of improving lives, increasing wellbeing and productivity for all of us throughout longer lives. Technology can be a part of this change, but only if we lay key foundations and commit to a bold vision of better care.

More than money

The UK is facing its own unique crisis situation in care, but these demographic pressures are global and will require local solutions, adapted to communities’ varying needs.

Some countries have already found that facing up to the challenge at home has left them better equipped to serve others’ needs; Japan’s robotics, and the Netherlands’ model of self-managed community based care, are proving attractive and saleable on the international stage.

Facing a workforce shortage frontline health and care staff, who for too long have performed vital work on low pay with low status reflected in poor protections and exploitation, will have increasing ability to choose their workplace. While pay is important, the emotional core of their work means they are likely to consider more than money in making that decision. Where will care and carers thrive? — Lydia Nicholas

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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