By Rebecca Jackson
Telecare is technology to help people live independently, usually in their own homes, for longer. Usually delivered as part of a package of care, telecare devices can include things like: bed sensors, to detect if someone is out of bed at an unusual time; fall sensors; medication reminders; and alerts on screens or over loudspeakers. Such devices have led telecare to be heralded as a new dawn in patient-centred, independent living. However, despite initiatives to drive its application forward, not everyone in the UK is convinced about the benefits of telecare.
Practitioners and carers are sceptical about the potential of replacing traditional care with digital models to save money and the impact that this could have on standards of care. In addition, many patients themselves are uncertain about the use of telecare and digital health solutions, with many who have telecare systems within their homes choosing to continue to interact with primary and home care services in the same way as before. Much of the academic and expert-led research and evaluation of telecare programmes in the UK by organisations such as the Nuffield Trust and the Kings Fund has found little to no improvement in service, reduction in cost or reduction in workload for care teams in areas where telecare has been deployed.
While telecare in the UK appears to have stalled, elsewhere digital health solutions are not only successfully integrated into traditional care models, but are having a positive impact on the people in receipt of care, and reducing the burden of work on care providers.
Lessons from Barcelona
In Spain, the law has guaranteed access to telecare since 2006. Economic austerity has led to individual local authorities in Spain being given control over their budgets and therefore their provision of telecare. The approach in Barcelona has been highlighted as an example of best practice in telecare.
The system there – a cooperative venture between an independent provider and the local authority – sees carers take a proactive approach to telecare. The system does not just monitor and provide assistance in times of distress, but proactively engages with service users at regular intervals to help carers provide reassurance and build relationships.
As well as the emergency measures, such as fall sensors (typically the primary use of telecare in the UK), calls are made to check up on service users, provide reassurance, deliver general public health information and to mark important occasions, like birthdays. This can help to reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, which in turn can lead to better general health and wellbeing.
Calls can also be made to highlight important information, such as weather warnings; safety alerts and local events which the service users may wish to attend. These calls are backed up by visits from the care team, who work for the telecare provider. These visits supplement visits from municipal care and social workers and the two teams communicate and share information via digital platforms.
Digital healthcare as an enabler
The case of Barcelona shows us how digital healthcare solutions, and more specifically telecare, can be used as an enabler – a tool to allow the local authority to pursue a joined up and preventative approach to healthcare which has positive benefits for recipients.
Such approaches could also have a significant impact on the UK’s 3.8 million unpaid carers. Telecare has the potential to reduce some of the burden and stress of caring for a relative, which in turn can have positive effects on the health of the person in receipt of care. It can also form an effective part of reablement programmes – supporting people as they leave hospital or return to independent living.
However the approach to delivering telecare in Britain is as much about culture as it is about the technological infrastructure. Using telecare as part of a preventative, person-centred approach should produce better outcomes. In this sense, implementation of telecare in the UK still lags behind other countries. Key lessons could also be learnt from programmes in Norway and the Netherlands in relation to telecare in dementia settings.
Generally, the targeting of telecare services also differs – in the UK it tends to be aimed at elderly people with complex and diverse needs, while in Norway and the Netherlands the focus has shifted to those suffering from chronic illnesses.
In the UK, some local authorities have been experimenting with digital healthcare, although local authority budget cuts have meant that in many cases these have been cut back to focus delivery on the most vulnerable clients.
The lessons in digital healthcare that Britain can learn from places like Barcelona could be key to the successful roll out of digital healthcare solutions in the future. The Barcelona example highlights the enabling role that telecare can play in joining up health and social care and promoting a more preventative approach to healthcare.
Opportunities to develop telecare strategies and deliver them in partnership, as in the Barcelona model, show that it cannot be delivered in isolation, or be used as a replacement for existing carer-led services. Instead telecare has the potential to be a supporting tool to ensure effective care outcomes. It could also help care services in Britain to tackle the increasing demand of an ageing population.
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Read some of our other blogs on social care:
- Co-production in social care … a need for systems change
- Budget cuts hit research in councils’ adult social care departments
- Giving service users a say: how self-directed support is shaking up social care service delivery in Scotland
- What’s happening to make big data use a reality in health and social care?