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Celebrating the lasting legacy of NHS Digital’s Social Care Programme

We harnessed the power of information and technology to help England’s health and care sectors to deliver more efficient and effective care.

Five years ago, the use of digital technology in adult social care looked very different to today.

Though the health and care systems are inextricably linked, there were often difficulties when trying to share important information, as messages weren’t always standardised and IT systems weren’t necessarily compatible. In addition, there was a huge variation in the use of digital technology among adult social care providers.

Computer-controlled robots which help carers to lift people are among the social care innovations.

Computer-controlled robots which help carers to lift people are among the social care innovations.

Tackling barriers

NHS Digital’s Social Care Programme, which was set up in 2016, aimed to tackle these barriers by harnessing the power of information and technology to help England’s health and care sectors to deliver more efficient and effective care.

Our focus was improving the digital maturity of the adult social care sector, which includes local authorities, domiciliary care and care homes, as well as making it easier to share information with NHS settings such as hospitals.

Our hope was that this would support local services working more closely together and that overall, people would receive better care.

It was a big ambition but our programme team, working with our partners and stakeholders, were determined to make a difference.

To do this, we needed to focus on the things that would have a true impact on people’s lives. It was essential that our work was led by users of adult social care and that we operated collaboratively with care providers, local authorities and other key stakeholders.

Following this guiding principle, the Social Care Programme has supported a great shift towards digital technology across the sector.

Encouraging innovation

Over 100 local projects were funded between 2016 and March this year, which included a huge range of innovations, from the development of apps which can prevent falls to computer-controlled robots which help carers to lift people.

The ‘cobots’ are robotic devices worn around the waist and lower back to support carers, reducing the risk of injury and meaning tasks can be carried out by one carer instead of two – cutting the risk of infection, a crucial benefit during the pandemic.

These were developed through some of the 49 projects supported by the Social Care Digital Innovation Programme and the Social Care Digital Innovation Accelerators, which were run in collaboration with the Local Government Association as part of the overall Social Care Programme.  

The tools not only improved social care, but also empowered people by giving them more control over their own wellbeing.

When the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit in the midst of some of the projects, the teams adapted so that digital tools could continue to support people – such as by using tablets and voice-activated speakers to help people feel connected during lockdown, or by assessments for long-term care taking place online.

We now want more people across the country to be able to benefit from these fantastic technologies and so we’re encouraging more social care providers, local authorities and charities to adopt them.

One of our main aims is to ensure these examples of best practice reach as many people as possible – so we’re also shouting about the success of products developed through the Digital Social Care Pathfinders.

These digital tools were developed to transform care, for example by using digital technology to reduce delayed transfers of care, or to prevent health conditions worsening by using artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict care needs.

The real-world benefits are numerous – a great example being the remote technology which monitors care home residents, particularly through the night, to alert staff to unusual movements or people calling for help. Participating care homes saw a large reduction in falls and in one case, it alerted them to a resident who had suffered a cardiac arrest during the night.

Engaging with technology

These projects were just part of the Social Care Programme – one of our other workstreams funded the development of Digital Social Care, a sector-led website helping care providers understand the benefits of digital maturity and engage with technology.

Our main aim was to increase the digital maturity of the social care sector and an evaluation of the programme shows there was a step change in this, with an impressive amount achieved for a relatively small budget.  

From a total initial investment of £23m, work spearheaded by the programme is expected to lead to £127m worth of benefits over the lifetime of the projects, up to 2029-30.

These include increased efficiency and productivity, as well as wider health and wellbeing benefits such as reducing the number of hospital admissions, ambulance call outs and GP appointments.

NHS Digital’s Social Care Programme concluded in March 2021 and NHSX is now leading on the digital transformation of social care, building on the achievements of the past five years.

We’re so proud of the transformation our programme has driven through partnership and the tangible difference made to people’s lives. As well as reducing healthcare needs, the products and services developed will improve people’s quality of life for years to come – a wonderful lasting legacy.

First published by National Health Executive in September 2021.

Last edited: 23 September 2021 5:31 pm