Necessity is the mother of invention. You might not have heard, but for the last few years NHS Digital have been investing a £1 million pot for councils to pitch innovative social care projects harnessing digital technology. One recently successful project saw Amazon Alexa installed in homes to help people remain more independent. With the continuous budget cuts councils have seen in recent years, they’re having to seek innovative ways of providing the vital services people need for much less money.
Many councils are pushing forward with digital transformation strategies to catch up with the private sector, including their social care services. Digital innovations like chatbots could deliver savings, as well as a more seamless user experience. So what are the social care challenges faced by councils, and how can digital technology help to make things better?
Social care at breaking point
Funding for social care is one of the greatest challenge facing councils providing care services to the most vulnerable people in our society. The government have long promised a Green paper which will address the question of how the social care system and its funding will look in future. According to a group of 15 health organisations led by the NHS Federation: ‘"social care is on the brink of collapse"...1.4 million older people in need in England now receive no help’.
In addition to this, a recent report commissioned by the Lloyds Bank Foundation indicated that ‘almost all (97%) of the reduction in spending has occurred in the most deprived fifth of local areas’. Clearly change needs to come soon.
Innovation at home
For councils with millions of pounds in funding deficits, it’s clear they need to find cost savings and ways to innovate in the care people receive. Suffolk council, with a £3.7m deficit, is exploring the use of devices which monitor movement to make sure patients are up and about, and have taken their medicine. “Technology will not replace one-to-one care, but could reduce and delay the need for it", Suffolk’s report states, suggesting that the use of technology can help to supplement the work of carers.
Dorset County Council’s funding from the Local Government Association’s Digital Transformation Programme, saw them create an automated intelligent Children’s Services Dashboard. This dashboard transformed their outdated processes to a centrally available, interactive source of data. The need for direct referrals to social services was reduced because interdisciplinary teams working with schools were empowered to tackle problems earlier on. This drop in requests led to a saving of £1,278,864 per annum.
NHS Digital research
In August, NHS Digital finished a 12 week period of research into the way people interact with them online when it comes to social care. Their findings reveal interesting opportunities for innovation and service improvement, from the NHS to councils.
What’s in a name?
Did you know Matt Hancock’s job title is now Secretary of State for Health and Social Care? It might seem trivial, but it’s an acknowledgement of how closely health and social care must work together. On a practical level, cuts to social care services have led to preventable hospital admissions, and patients being kept in hospital because adequate social care provision isn’t available at home.
The current situation increases the cost of delivering services, as lower levels of physical and mental health create a higher demand on GPs, hospitals and social services. The cost of helping the socially isolated can be unsustainably high at around £6000 per person, and the issue also affects businesses; a recent report estimating the cost of loneliness to UK employers to be c. £2.5 billion per year. It’s key that those suffering from loneliness and social isolation are identified and helped quickly to avoid further escalation.
NHS Digital admit that public awareness of how social care works, and how to access it is all quite low. Clearly that information needs to be communicated in a much more accessible and personal way.
Chatbots built into local authority websites would be a good way of making people feel much more able to interact and ask questions about key services. They could even convert the online referral process to a more personalised conversation with a bot. This would also enable councils to gather information about issues their constituents are facing and adapt both their services and how they communicate them.
There is currently a lot of debate around how vital social care for the elderly is funded, with an astonishing 1.4 million older people in need not receiving help. It isn’t surprising that older people would rather discuss sensitive personal care issues over the phone. Whilst chatbots can ease the load of human customer service teams, it’s still imperative for councils to continue providing the preferred channels of communication for their users.
Social care services do also cover wider demographics including children and adults with disabilities and children in care. Younger audiences are much more used to engaging with organisations digitally, and need a more personal, self-service approach. It’s a worthwhile investment for councils to make a chatbot part of their offering when it comes to social care services. As with any business, chatbots are best implemented to support human agents to be able to do their jobs more effectively, and deliver a better customer experience.
Joining up the dots
One of the other major challenges highlighted by NHS Digital, is the lack of connectedness between social care service providers, and information held in localised, often out-of-date directories. For health and social care services to perform at their best and most efficient, joined up processes need to be in place with information available to everyone who needs it. Automation and AI can do a lot to speed up processes when it comes to databases, and the kind of interactive directory that is needed for social care services.
This social care data work may be a big, labour intensive project with costs involved. But our work with Monmouthshire Council showed that it is still possible to innovate while making budgetary cuts: “With the ever declining budgets, we need to investigate how robotic process automation could release staff from those mundane tasks.” – Abigail Barton, Communications and Engagement Manager at Monmouthshire County Council.
Is your council looking to transform their stretched social care services? Artificial intelligence and chatbots can do a lot to support your teams as they strive to cut costs and prioritise frontline services.