Home / Resources & Guidance / Empowering the Care Sector’s Digital Journey: A Path to Improved Care and Sustainability.

As the care sector journeys into the digital age, the transformational potential that digital technologies and data will have on providers is unprecedented. However, in order to unlock this potential, assurances must be made so that the care sector can fully thrive from these innovations. In this article, Care England’s Policy and Public Sector Officer Fraser Rickatson, underscores the policies needed to support compliance and the care sector’s journey of digitalisation – as presented in his speech at The Access Group’s event on 9 August.

Care England wants to see a care sector that has fully embarked on a digital journey so that both providers and those who draw on care and support can reap the benefits that digital technologies and data can provide. However, we want to ensure that this is done properly; that the digital journey is a consensual one that has been tailored to the needs of the sector and produces tangible outcomes to support the sustainability of all services.

When discussing the current digital landscape, it is important to stress that it is a misconception to believe the care sector is digitally illiterate and is trapped in an outdated, paper-based system. This is far from the truth.

Like a baptism of fire, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need for care providers to advance digitally, not just through the technological advancements needed to support the everyday delivery of high-quality care, but through the data made available in the system to inform the decision-making process and create meaningful change. The transformations made then have not stopped since, and the sector is constantly evolving, reforming, and perfecting what it means to be digital. This has prompted great attention from the central government, which has released a host of different digitally focussed strategies and developments to capitalise on this. Care England, whenever possible, has supported the Government in developing care-sector digital workstreams.

Care England fundamentally believes in the strengths that a digitally savvy sector will have in boosting productivity, enhancing the quality of care and streaming efficiencies. However, we also believe that any steps taken towards digital advancement must be made in collaboration with the care sector. The Government  must hear their concerns, understand their needs and build interoperable systems that recognise them as equal partners to wider stakeholders.

Now more than ever, it is critical that Government ambitions properly address the digital foundations within the sector, ensuring that services have the correct infrastructure to make meaningful progress. Not all providers will have the basic requirements for digitalisation and will need full support to ensure that their homes are wired sufficiently to support this, that they have the proper connectivity to adopt tools fully, and most importantly that they have robust cyber security measures to protect the data they are collecting.

It is important to get this right now because the benefits of digitalisation are clear. Digital innovation will improve the quality of care, support people staying independent for longer, provide reliable data to inform key policy initiatives and improve the integration between health and social care via interoperable platformed data-sharing at both local and national levels.

This is reflected in our recent report, ‘From Inception to Implementation: A Year in Integrated Care Systems’ which examines how Integrated Care Systems (ICSs) have developed since they were formally established in July 2022. The report seeks to place a specific focus on how ICSs have managed and overcome pressures associated with the planning, coordination and commissioning of health and care services.

Throughout May and June 2023, Care England conducted a series of qualitative interviews with ICS leaders from across England to understand their system’s key challenges and successes within four themes:

  • New structures and managing the change
  • Identifying and overcoming the pressure points
  • The priorities and ambitions
  • Where do we go next?

The report concludes with a set of tangible recommendations aimed at both ICSs and the Government, which, if implemented, would further accelerate integration between health and social care whilst overcoming system barriers identified through the report.

The report highlighted the importance of data and the wider digital agenda for Integrated Care Systems (ICS). One ICS leader emphasizes data as a game changer in their work, while another emphasizes the need for a single source of truth to operationalize the system effectively. Access to comprehensive data at the system level was recognised by those that we interviewed as essential to increasing the efficiency and continuity of integrated care. Advancing digital systems within localities enables system partners to collaborate more effectively, particularly in terms of the health and social care workforce. This approach ensures individuals receive the same quality of care but in a more streamlined manner, consulting multiple factions within both health and social care without overwhelming the workforce. The introduction of “virtual wards” with “integrated teams” is cited as an example of successful digitalization between system partners, enhancing and delivering high-quality care.

You can read the full report here.

For a lot of the different data-driven initiatives in social care, compliance is mandatory. And one of the difficulties with data collection and data compliance is encouraging providers to invest the time and resources to collate and share this information. With both of these factors becoming increasingly limited for providers, policies need to ensure that providers will not just see the outcomes that their data has had, but that they benefit from it.

Take, for example, Care England’s exclusive Market Intelligence Tool, MINT. This tool offers a lifeline to understanding both current and historic care home fees by local authorities in England, ensuring that providers are the ones most informed in fee negotiations. Unlike any other tool, MINT platforms every commissioning authority base, average, median and fair cost of care rates, what they said they’d pay, what they are paying, and what they should be paying, including benchmarks and options to compare data to previous years and against peer authorities.

Along with CQC reporting capability to compare regulated service ratings locally, the ability to review local average self-funder fees and provide access to fees paid to peer providers for older persons and learning disability providers – MINT supplies all the vital data with up-to-date, downloadable evidence that is needed by providers when in correspondence with local authorities and the NHS.

While we have a multi-faceted approach to data collection for MINT, members want to provide us with any data they can, because they get to benefit from a robust tool that provides them with a vast wealth of intelligence that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Providers recognise that knowledge is power, and MINT empowers providers with the local knowledge to secure the funding needed.

Taking everything into consideration then, the future policies that will support the care sector’s digital journey, need to include the following three points:

  • Ensure the Digital Foundations
  • Ensure Interoperability
  • And Ensure Benefit

As the sector embarks on this new journey, it is so critical that we get everything right now. We need to ensure that every provider has both the capability and capacity to fully embrace the opportunities that are presented through the process of digitisation. To do so, providers need to ensure they have the appropriate infrastructure (which includes connectivity and wiring), the training and development for their staff to utilise these tools, and the cyber security to protect the data they collect. However, given the current significant funding constraints present in the sector, providers cannot afford to ensure they are well equipped for this on top of all the other competing priorities they have to address, such as the workforce and rising utility costs. Government policies and support should include full, ring-fenced funding to ensure that all providers can get the foundations right now so that potential barriers to digitalisation later down the line are removed.

In addition to this, it is important that the tools which providers are providing data for actually work for them. As recognised by ICSs, the digitalisation of care provision is central to enhancing patient care and enabling providers to meet their core objectives. When ICSs support their providers to digitalise their systems and ensure interoperability with their partners so that providers can implement their data effectively – ICSs gain access to valuable data for strategic decision-making at the system level.

This is reflected in our report, wherein we put the recommendation that:

NHS England should strive to ensure national oversight of each ICSs’ digital makeup to ascertain where funding must be allocated to create a standardised consistent digital foundation that ICSs can build. This would include interoperable data systems that integrate with both health and social care IT systems.

Ultimately though, at the heart of future policies, there must be an instilled focus on people and outcomes. Policies must ensure that there is a tangible benefit for providers to comply, as ultimately, if providers can’t see the point of complying, why would they?

We are all aware of the impact that digitisation can have on the care sector. Digital innovation unlocks new methods to improve the delivery of care – it can make care more effective, and it can improve the everyday experiences of those in receipt of care. For this reason, it is so essential that digital policies reflect this and empowers every provider to properly embed themselves in this evolution of the sector.

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