Friday 4 June 2021 10:00 am

It'll take more than money to fix Britain's social care system

Max Parmentier is CEO of healthtech start-up Birdie

It’s almost clichéd to say that the elderly care sector is in crisis. But it’s true: a quarter of UK home care providers face bankruptcy and it’s estimated that English local authorities will face a £4.4bn funding gap by 2023. 

Why is this happening? The obvious answer is lack of money. Social care has been underfunded for years, lagging behind other areas of healthcare. Because of this, most of the public debate centres on securing new sources of finance: the Prime Minister was criticised earlier this month for failing to provide details of long-promised funding reforms in the Queen’s Speech.

Read more: Social care reform must do more than prop up of a broken system with a bottomless pit of money

This diagnosis is correct, but it misses a crucial fact: across the world, the population is ageing so rapidly (over 65s will double in population by 2050) that soon, no feasible amount of new money alone will be enough to keep the system afloat. The German example – where funding reforms have been rapidly outpaced and rendered unsustainable by Germany’s ageing population – is instructive.

So we need instead to ask ourselves: how can we reform the way care is delivered to prepare for this coming change? 

Part of the answer is technology. At present, most care workers rely on pen and paper to do their job, resulting in massive amounts of time spent filling in and filing paperwork. Inevitably this detracts from the care that is delivered – it becomes inefficient and reactive and important care recipient information is too easily overlooked or lost in the system. 

Technology is an enabler and by digitising, every party will gain. Older people will benefit from better, more coordinated care, allowing them to live healthier, happier and more independent lives. For the family, communications will improve, going from being patchy and delayed to comprehensive and instant.

For the carer themselves, they go from being stretched and having to spend all their time on admin, to being able to deliver high-quality face-to-face care. This shift is important for two reasons. The first is that they can stop being overstretched firefighters and start thinking proactively, delivering care in a holistic way that works for them.

They can use the extra time – and technological functionality like data analytics – to identify emerging health issues before they become serious, keeping elderly people at home rather than in hospital. And they can go from working from a checklist of medicinal interventions to having the tools to consider every aspect of an older person’s wellbeing, including diet, socialising and exercise.

Read more: None of the parties have a credible plan to fix the social care crisis

The second reason is less tangible but just as important. Recruiting, retaining and developing quality professionals is impossible in a sector surrounded by narratives of crisis, failure and collapse. But if we give social care professionals the time, the tools and the structures for them to feel that their work is valued and progressive, the entire system will be strengthened. In Nottinghamshire, we’re working on a trial in which carers, using our technological platform, liaise directly with care recipients’ GPs.

This novel arrangement, which is much easier to integrate into a carer’s work through technology they are already using than on pen and paper, has obvious health benefits but it also creates new working relationships and development opportunities for the staff themselves. National bodies can learn a lot from grassroots projects like this – the NHS’s introduction of the new Integrated Care Systems is a great example, encouraging collaboration across traditional silos to the benefit of those they are all aiming to support. 

Securing new funding for social care has proved difficult: reforming how care is provided will undoubtedly be even more so. But the demographics don’t lie, and unless we find a way to rethink care to keep our older adults independent and happy at home for as long as possible, it will be bad news for us all.

Read more: We stayed home, now we have to protect the NHS with structural reforms

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