Care Connectivity: Entering the Future of Social Care

By Adrian Smith, Health and Social Care Lead at West Midlands 5G (WM5G) (www.wm5g.org.uk)

The need for reform in the social care sector has been a hot and contested topic of discussion for many years. Solving the care conundrum and finding solutions that work at scale, across different modes of care, remains a challenge; despite the many new innovations entering the market.

The needs of residents have become more complex, yet the ways in which we look after them has in real-terms seen little change since the 1950s. In fact, the parliament care minister Gillian Keegan’s recent white paper revealed that 60% of social care providers still rely on paper records. Digitisation and more widespread adoption of technology could easily complement and enhance the work already delivered by the workforce and help tackle this challenge.

As care providers, we are acutely aware that current ways of working are becoming increasingly unsustainable unless we can increase capacity and re-distribute the burden of care away from care homes, clinics and hospitals for a more managed at home or community care solution.

However, what’s reassuring, is that many of the solutions that might have the potential to build a more resilient future already exist and are being trialled, with ideas and the development of technologies being vastly accelerated as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.

We are at the cusp of the care industry breaking into the world of smart connected technologies. When implemented at scale, these solutions will vastly improve capacity amongst staff, and safety and continuity of care for patients.

In fact, PwC anticipates that – once fully adopted – the fifth generation (5G) connective technology, will add £15 Billion to the healthcare sector by 2030. This will be through the enabling of greater automation, allowing more aspects of medical care or processes to be provided via digital means, both in and outside of the clinical setting. Not only will this decrease footfall in hospitals and care homes, but it will also alleviate pressure on care providers.

THE DIGITAL TWIN

In the West Midlands the UK’s first region-wide testbed for 5G technologies – WM5G – has enabled care providers, the NHS, clinical commissioning groups, local businesses and mobile network providers to join forces. The ambition is to prove the benefits of 5G technology and find workable solutions ready for implementation at scale.

One such project took place during the early parts of the pandemic where five care homes in the region formed part of a trial to establish 5G’s role in enabling remote diagnostics, GP examinations and ward rounds.

The 5G enabled diagnostic tool used permitted GPs to conduct a full patient check-up, capturing all the information that would normally be captured in an in-person examination. This is achieved using a device capturing patient data through a mixture of high-resolution photography, video, readings from a thermometer or otoscope (a medical device used to look in the ear) as well as a portable ECG and spirometry (lung function).

Connected diagnostics tools such as these allow us to move beyond basic video consultations, making telecommunications solutions more personable, powerful and versatile. They also save GP travel time and resource, equally unlocking more time for patient appointments, making regular access more accessible.

In the era of Covid-19 connected care options have also proven highly valuable in limiting infection risk, while maintaining usual standards of care.

A CLEARER PICTURE OF PATIENT WELLBEING AND DETERIORATION

In another trial, taking place in Wolverhampton, three tower blocks are being connected via 5G to explore how emerging wireless technologies across broadband and narrowband can help health and social care providers.

The work, forming part of the NHS Future Wireless Programme, is identifying the connectivity requirements and pathways for daily and continuous use of internet of things (IoT) sensors for remote monitoring. Data captured will help build a picture of the patient’s state – a ‘digital twin’ – and enabling automated alerts triggering interventions when behaviour falls outside of the norm. This will ultimately enable more patients to safely remain at home for longer before moving into residential care and help prevent the need for hospital admittance.

As elderly and vulnerable people account for a large proportion of emergencies, it is important to create a solution for such monitoring that enables carers and medical staff to quickly access a baseline of information about patients at the point of need. This is critical when seeking to move continuous monitoring away from traditional care settings, or utilising tools such as machine learning to more rapidly identify deterioration or potential risks.

Once proven – it will be possible for carers to get a clearer picture of patient’s health and better recognise the early signs of deterioration and respond to their needs through social prescribing, community action and at home interventions.

We already know these kinds of interventions are often better for the patient and can produce significant cost savings, but to make it a reality robust connectivity must be the key underpinning requirement to providing ubiquitous access to health and care provision at the point of need.

5G may appear like a small change to connectivity but will ultimately play a major part in allowing people to live independently at home for longer, stay in better health and remain connected to expert care.

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