The fact that people are now living longer on average is undoubtedly a good thing.
However, it also means more people experiencing long-term health conditions for longer, creating an immense strain on healthcare systems as well as carers and families. There is also a growing problem with social isolation, and those impacted by severe loneliness have a much greater risk of premature death from all causes, including higher rates of depression and suicide.
Even before the pandemic, health and care providers were already very stretched and facing continued challenges to fund therapies and provide optimal care to people. The current situation of increasing needs being met with diminishing resources is unsustainable and in need of an entirely new approach.
In these situations, transformative and disruptive thinking can provide the answers. But what would transformative thinking look like in this context?
The fact that people are now living longer on average is undoubtedly a good thing.
- 1 million people aged 75+ do not speak to anyone in over a month
- 165,000 vacant adult social care roles in the UK (BBC)
- 9 in 10 nurses in Europe declared their intention to quit their jobs in 2021 (WHO)
No ideal options
Currently, there is no clear or obvious option for addressing the needs of a person who is aging and has a life-long condition requiring special care.
One option is a nursing home, but this is expensive (avg. £28,000/ yr) and also ‘takes away’ much of the freedom people have enjoyed up to this point. We also have evidence indicating that moving people to a nursing home decreases their life expectancy.
Another common alternative is for the person to continue living at home, which does not constitute an additional cost, but it also does not help with the management of any underlying health conditions.
The other option is for the older person to move in with someone else such as a family member. This option, in theory, addresses both the cost and the health support but is often not practical.
Finally, there is a hybrid between a nursing home and stay-at-home, which involves receiving care at home, either provided by the public system, by social care (reablement), or private care.
There is no obvious good choice. But what if, in the near future, there were other options available to address the needs of the elderly better?
New option 1: Transforming homes into smart care homes
A smart home is an environment with embedded sensors and other devices that seamlessly help the user control elements of their dwelling. These may range from voice-activated lights and thermostats to smart speakers.
The same gadgets could also be used to equip homes with tech that facilitates health monitoring of residents while also promoting independence. The purpose of these devices would be to keep people at home for longer, remain healthier and closely monitor their conditions, effectively reducing the need for out-of-home specialised care.
Current options to add technology to homes focus on increased monitoring (telecare monitoring) or connecting a smart device to a family member or carer. What’s lacking is a ‘prepackaged offer’ suite of options where people can select the level of ‘smartness’ required. This market space would be a fantastic use case for smart tech to bring positive change to people's lives.
New option 2: Fitting nursing and care homes with technology
Another possibility is to fit nursing and care homes with technology and IT systems to help staff provide better care. This may borrow elements of the smart home option, but it expands into the digitisation of records and processes. It incorporates new systems to help staff manage workload whilst freeing time to spend with residents.
These tools have the added benefit of increasing work satisfaction and staff morale. They can save money by automating repetitive tasks and reducing attrition rates. In the private sector, tools such as ERP, CDP and CRM are nothing new, and they work very well. Could we borrow a page from that playbook and use it in this setting?
New option 3: Smart retirement village
The third - and more transformative - option is the concept of a smart retirement village. This borrows elements from the two previous options. Residents live in their own homes without the need to move into a care home, allowing for a greater level of independence and autonomy. They have quick access to health services (GP surgeries and health clinics) as well as other amenities such as recreational facilities, cafes, and other offers to promote active living.
This will not be a budget option, but if structured as a leasehold, it can be seen as an asset, where people buy their home and pay a service charge to the operators of the village. These homes would be fitted with varying levels of tech bespoke to the person's needs or requirements. Built from the ground up with integrated systems working in harmony with one another, rather than bolt-on solutions or through the retrofitting of existing homes. The great side benefit is that it helps to address loneliness.
Use of existing tech
The digitisation of medical records is a good starting point to enable improved efficiencies.
An obvious follow-on would be to use text to enable self-service options. Professionals in health and care can effectively handle 5-7 text-based conversations simultaneously. This provides an additional channel for people to choose from and is especially suited for non-emergency tasks such as processing insurance claims, submitting routine readings to an HCP, or reordering prescriptions. It also enables the asynchronous completion of tasks.
Automation of routine tasks and reminders to HCPs (and the person in receipt of care) can improve the quality of care. By now, we are all very familiar with using reminders, and these can be employed to prompt patients and HCPs about recurring tasks – the impact on the completion of tasks at care homes could be dramatic. Automatically bringing the most relevant and up-to-date details about a patient’s health whenever a patient engages with a health provider - or insurer - would provide superior service and higher quality of care. These would allow providers to spend less time with bureaucracy and more - quality - time with people.
Near future use of tech
Robots & Robopets
It’s unlikely that general-purpose humanoid robots will be taking care of our grandparents anytime soon. What is much more likely is that single-purpose robots will start to be placed in people's homes. These machines will help people with daily chores, for example cleaning, washing dishes or helping people get out of bed into a wheelchair. Robopets already exist and have even been introduced in a few nursing homes in the UK. These have built-in sensors, learn to respond to the name given to them and react to being petted by opening their eyes and turning their body towards the person holding it. Studies have shown statistically significant results in reducing stress and anxiety and markedly improving social interaction and mood.
Sensors and wearables
Smart devices are already a part of our lives. Smartwatches and other wearables can monitor our vitals and sleep patterns, both very useful health insights to caregivers, doctors and also the user. The ability to request emergency assistance on such devices seems to be both feasible and desirable. Smart lights could do basic things such as automatically turning on/off at pre-specified times to turning on as the person steps out of bed. Linking lights to floor sensors could reduce the risk of falls. Using lights to promote alertness or preparing us for bed by changing the colour to help with sleep, can also improve healthy living. The same sensors could be used to detect falls and automatically call for help or to check in with the person to see if help is needed.
One of the few positives of the pandemic was that it dramatically demonstrated online education and training are possible. There are too few nurses, GPs and mental health workers, and the situation is even worse in social care. E-learning could help more people become carers and alleviate some of the load on the healthcare system. This is also very much in line with the NHS' idea of reablement – a type of short-term aftercare that helps people relearn how to do daily activities, like cooking or washing. The service is typically provided for 1 or 2 weeks but requires professionals to provide 1:1 support. This limits the duration of the support and also the reach of the programme. Technology can allow the programme to expand its reach.
Let’s transform social care
The ideas discussed here are not beyond the realm of possibility. Insurers may find that offering more remote monitoring and better self-service options helps improve customer experience, as well as a source of differentiation. Similarly, healthcare companies are facing increased demand for virtual care coverage, and digital experiences in this sector continue to fall short of consumer expectations. Both are areas addressable by a novel use of technology.
Care homes have a plethora of options and opportunities to digitally transform their operations and the services they provide. Furthermore, property developers who have largely remained absent from the smart care home sector, may find unique opportunities to secure funding and customers as the concept of a retirement village grows in popularity and the need for a better option for our elders continues to grow.
Want to explore the possibilities of tech, health, and social care further? Talk to us now to discuss with our experts in this area.