Tomorrow's health and social care

As a nation, we’re getting older. Ten million people in the UK are now over the age of 65. As a greater number of us live longer, the volume of age-related health conditions increases. Issues such as social isolation and loneliness compound matters. Safeguarding the nation’s future well-being means becoming smarter about how we care. A greater use of innovative approaches and technology offers a clear answer to delivering efficient, effective, long-term answers.

Signs of strain

The growing number of elderly people requiring help and support is already taking its toll on the NHS and is a strain on public sector finances. That’s today in the UK. Tomorrow’s challenges will be even greater. It’s expected that the nation’s life expectancy will increase by 4.2 years over the next 20 years. The ramifications are astonishing. Take, for example, a potential 44% rise in the demand for social care by 2030, as the number of people aged over the age of 65 with a limiting long-standing illness increases. Look further ahead and, by 2050, there will be almost twice as many senior citizens over 65 years as there are now.

The current set-up of health and social care services cannot meet the heightened demand on the system; a radically different approach is needed. Embracing Assisted Living, Telehealth and Telecare solutions points the way ahead. Anglia Ruskin University has coined the term ‘smart living’ products and services for these solutions, which range from the use of integrated sensor systems to streamlined data logging and information management. However, to date, the adoption of such innovations has been slow because there are some considerable barriers to overcome.  

Barriers to innovation

Smart technology plays a significant role in our everyday lives, yet it remains under-exploited by the NHS, other care providers, and by manufacturers. Three main barriers have blocked progress here.

Operationally, the complexity of care systems – the way they are organised and run – hinders the adoption of smart living solutions. There are challenging and complex budget and financial restrictions to contend with for a start and this has led to a ‘short-termist’ approach, focusing on quick returns that steer organisational structures away from investment in innovation and do not make the best use of existing processes and finances.

Technologically speaking, solutions are fragmented when a joined-up approach across delivery is required. The size and scale of the health and social care systems mean it is difficult to roll out technologies systematically network-wide, but the lack of success is not just down to the system.

Manufacturers’ solutions often lack supporting research in terms of their development, are not user-friendly or are misaligned with practical needs; few solutions to date are appropriate to use with people who, for example, may have trouble seeing, hearing or even touching. There has also been a lack of appropriate data gathering that could improve alert mechanisms, trigger interventions and GP involvement. Closer collaboration is required between industry and care providers and vice versa.

Socially, change in behaviour is also needed to encourage people to make greater use of technology for their well-being. Most of us have either heard a story, or have encountered first hand, an elderly relative who is wary of using new technology, but it is not just older people who are affected here. The fear of losing one’s privacy or identity is a very real issue for many of us; worries around the abuse of technology often prevent those who would benefit most from its positive application from using it. Add to this the remote element; those who feel socially isolated are likely to dismiss technology that they feel will further reduce personal contact and relationships, such as with district nurses or hospital professionals.

Solutions to the problems

The Smart Living Accelerator, which is led by the Anglia Ruskin MedTech Campus initiative, is currently running three projects to address each of the main barriers to innovation. This brings together a partnership of healthcare professionals, local authorities, private industry and Anglia Ruskin for closer collaboration all round. The ultimate aim is to de-risk the uptake of technologies because they will have been developed in conjunction with health and social care providers, researched rigorously and tested thoroughly.

The Informed Patient

This project is rethinking the way we provide information to individuals who have been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). According to the Alzheimers Society, MCI is a condition that affects between 5% and 20% of all older people. In a third of all diagnosed cases of MCI, people will go on to develop dementia. Our solution is to develop a portal that offers MCI sufferers access to an interactive online resource, including information and advice on products and services that will help change behaviour. Evidence suggests that the ability for an individual to self-inform and self-care can slow down and even prevent the advancement of certain conditions. By providing a smarter operational solution such as this, the NHS will also benefit from cost savings.

Sensor to Decision

The management of certain long-term conditions, such as coronary heart failure, represents a major challenge for health and social care providers. We believe the adoption of smart technological solutions can help in this area and are developing a process of collecting data from patients through the use of body and room-surveillance sensors. The data gathered will start to build a more comprehensive picture of what causes re-admissions to hospital in certain patient groups. This intelligence will help minimise the need for elective surgeries, improve the health and well-being of patients and lead to financial savings.

The True Cost of Loneliness

To reduce feelings of social loneliness and isolation among the elderly, which compound health issues, the Smart Living Accelerator is looking at building a TV portal, giving users access to information on nutritional advice, exercise-classes, dining experiences and personal shopping services. Home-bound individuals will be able to simply switch on their set for support and services from ‘virtual experts’.

A regional project of national importance

Centred in Essex, The Smart Living Accelerator rationale is endorsed by industry, the NHS and local and central government, and resonates with government strategy, notably the NHS/TSB 3 Million Lives Programme, establishment of Catapult Centres and publication locally of the Hallet Report for Essex County Council (‘Who Will care?’). The Smart Living Accelerator is part of the Anglia Ruskin MedTech Campus, which provides breakthrough support for innovations and new approaches within the Medical Technology and Assisted Living sector. Support includes connecting organisations with the right people, testing and developing innovations, finding routes to market, providing access to funding and guiding commercial decision-making. The campus will also provide one of the world’s largest health innovation spaces: 120 acres wide open to ideas.