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Why aren’t more social workers using technology?

Iain MacBeath, strategic director of health and wellbeing at City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council and honorary treasurer at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS), discusses the benefits of integrating technology into social care.

When it comes to care technology, many councils commission the same services, year after year. Very few have the headspace to do things differently around social care and digital, with their time consumed instead by ongoing increases in need and the necessity to shore up existing care and support services.

As a result, most adult social services continue to be reactive. We rely on referrals from practitioners, scheduled reviews of support, families reaching a crisis point or recognising a change in circumstance. We add individuals to waiting lists and react to their needs.

Yet the majority of those individuals and carers don’t actually want us visibly in their lives. As Social Care Future puts it: ‘we all want to live in the place we call home with the people and things we love, in communities where we look out for one another, doing the things that matter to us.’

Social services are often perceived as ‘removers’ of this independence. Many individuals worry that decisions about where or how they live will be made for them and not with their interests, aspirations or personal values front and centre.

So wouldn’t it be great if we could be more responsive to people’s needs, enabling individuals to self-manage their own wellbeing and health as the default approach?

If councils were able to be more proactive and utilise data and digital solutions to spot problems early on, then they could help prevent people’s health from deteriorating.

This approach would support individuals to stay in their own homes and communities for longer and could reduce long term reliance on social care. Supporting people at an earlier stage also offers more choice and control for individuals, enabling them to live the lives they want to lead.

People tell us that technology makes them feel not only safer but more empowered and connected to their communities. We know it gives carers greater confidence when they can check in on their loved ones remotely.

Families say the quality of relationships and conversations between them and their relative improves because technology offers peace of mind, meaning the questioning and the worrying reduces.

The social care practitioners I work with also tell me that technology gives them more one-to-one time with the individuals they support because it can remove some of the more time-consuming, administrative tasks.

Despite the benefits of technology being widely known, truly integrating it into adult social care has eluded most parts of the country. Since November 2020 I’ve been working with colleagues at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) and the TEC Services Association (TSA) to understand why.

Over recent months we’ve spoken to nearly 60 senior leaders in adult social care, housing and health as well as practitioners and individuals, families and carers accessing support. This work has been part of a Commission to identify how we can mainstream technology within adult social care.

One of the key barriers we’ve identified is procurement. Social care commissioners need to make tenders freer and more flexible, adding innovation clauses into contracts so suppliers come to them with ideas rather than specifying everything they must do.

This is about commissioners having the creative capacity to cast their eye forward to the end of the next contract and investing in different ways. This partnership approach will give the manufacturers confidence to invest their resources and develop new solutions.

But it’s also about better co-production, so social care professionals and technology suppliers share power and decision making equally with people and families.

This is more important than ever around care technology because it enables digital services to be designed around an individual’s aspirations, not what the latest kit is or what we think someone’s needs might be. It also allows us to get people’s views on the ethical issues presented by collecting more data and using digital monitoring, particularly for people who might not have mental capacity anymore.

In our final report, the ADASS TSA Commission identifies many other challenges around data sharing, digital literacy and poor digital infrastructure. We are calling on the Government to address these issues by funding a two-year programme of 10 social care innovation projects to begin the process of normalising digital within social care.

Learnings from this proposed ‘Personalised Care Innovation Programme’ will then be rolled out to all 151 local authority adult social care services in England. By sharing best practice widely and giving councils the guidance and tools to integrate technology into their social services, my hope is that we can become much more responsive, finding individuals who need our support before they find us.

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