The care sector must embrace the digital switch

PSE’s Seamus McDonnell hears from former care minister Paul Burstow about the opportunities that digitisation can bring to the health market once analogue services are switched off.

By 2025, analogue services in the UK will be switched off and almost completely replaced by digital connections. What does this mean for the millions of pendants, fall detectors and other devices which are currently central to the care industry?

Former care minister Paul Burstow argues the care sector needs to use this opportunity to embrace the new technology on offer, but warned that action must be taken sooner rather than later.

Now working as president of the Telecare Services Association (TSA), the ex-Liberal Democrat MP, who served for 18 years, says there are currently 1.7 million connections controlled by councils which will be affected when analogue services disappear. Councils must act quickly to understand the benefits of new technology, but also to weigh up the risks of exposing vulnerable people to digital systems which have to be actively maintained in order to be secure.

“The issue is one of managing this migration from a service that is founded on analogue telephony, which has historically been very secure – it’s not easy for it to be compromised from the point of view of hacking and privacy issues – to a digital IT-based system, which will have some of those risks,” Burstow told me.

“Those risks will need to be managed and mitigated by councils in terms of privacy, but also there will be some issues around ensuring that the current level of certainty that providers can offer is maintained into the digital world.”

Authorities still have ample time to plan for these changes, but Burstow claimed it would be sensible to act early to ensure that the technology is reliable. “The paramount concern here is that we have a testing regime in place with each of the infrastructure providers that enables suppliers and manufacturers of the devices to test these, so that there is an adequate level of assurance for authorities and housing associations,” he added.

The fear is not that people will be completely unprepared for the switch, but that the time for such changes will soon be upon us without councils taking full advantage of the innovations that can be created using this technology.

For example, most homes these days use some kind of smart system – such as smart speakers, hubs, kitchen appliances and smart meters – which Burstow and the TSA believe could be incorporated into future digital care systems to provide more detailed, personalised information.

“Those technologies are also connected to the internet and, as well as supporting people’s lifestyles, they can be used to gather information that is very valuable to supporting that person’s independence if they are disabled, elderly or living with a long-term health condition,” he explained.

“We want local authorities to be thinking about how those existing technologies in people’s homes can be bundled in to create a much richer data picture, and allow them to be more predictive and proactive in the way they offer their services. This would reduce demand on the healthcare system and also possibly reduce the need for more hands-on, formal care from authorities.”

However, there is a cost to this digital revolution. The TSA estimates a total investment of between £150m-£300m would be necessary to complete upgrades across the sector. The lower bound only indicates changes where the technology offered would be a mirror of the current analogue services, while providing new kinds of care will cost significantly more – mostly on purchasing the equipment. But, as Burstow argued: “If we just copy the old world into the new, we are missing a trick; we are missing an opportunity.”

He will continue to work with the TSA to push the sector to begin testing this new technology so that the dawn of the digital age of care benefits the sector rather than damages it.




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