The rise of technology in care: how will it affect workers?

Last year Southend-on-Sea became the first UK council to employ a humanoid robot to help older people with certain activities. Pepper the robot can play memory games and show videos, and will help with reminiscence activities or exercise sessions.

It is, perhaps, a glimpse of things to come. Technology has a growing role in the care sector, especially given the overstretched workforce and the ageing population (one in four of us will be over 65 by 2050). The health and social care secretary, Matt Hancock, recently committed to exploring new technologies that could revolutionise health and social care. But how will new technologies influence future care jobs, and will they create new tech jobs in care?

“It could be that you have a tech operative working within a care home … [or] a care professional who manages your care, but the care itself is delivered by devices,” says Jonathan Rossiter, professor of robotics at Bristol Robotics Laboratory – a collaboration between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England (UWE).

As care homes become “smart” and residents use wearable tech, staff could collaborate with developers to improve the technology, says Rossiter. He adds: “This is one way to allay the fear of tech, to see that this is something that can help.”

Other projects at Rossiter’s lab include smart trousers that incorporate artificial muscles (nicknamed “the right trousers”) designed for people with mobility problems.

A Pepper humanoid robot.

Three Sisters Care, a London-based social enterprise homecare agency, has just taken part in a three-year research project with the Bristol Robotics Lab. The work, to design an intelligent modular robotic systemthat could help people stay independent for longer, is at the proof-of-concept stage. The machine would be located in multiple positions around the home and has the potential to help people with anything from getting up from a chair, to getting ready in the morning to preparing a meal

Three Sisters Care chief executive Jason Lamont says the organisation’s 300 staff have already integrated technology into their jobs, for example, by completing care assessments on tablets, not paper. He adds: “In the old days, staff would phone in to prove they’d arrived or left an appointment … now it’s all done via an app and QR scanners.” A year ago, Three Sisters Care hired a monitoring officer to check that technology is updated and ensure staff arrive for care visits on time.

There are, however, concerns about the role of technology within the care sector. There are fears that robots could take over human jobs and there are particular concerns around the ethics of using automated technology for personal care or emotional support.

Donald Macaskill, chief executive of independent sector association Scottish Care, recently launched a report, Tech Rights, on the ethical impact of the increased use of technology in care. The report calls for the Scottish government to fund and support a human-rights based ethical charter for technology.

While recognising the potential of tech, Macaskill argues that there should be more discussion about the right to be supported by a person, rather than by a machine, as well as the implications of data-gathering. There are concerns around “a loss of control, to decisions being made by machines, to a loss of human contact and presence. For workers in social care the concerns include the tracking of work so that the worker can be made to feel as if they are being electronically tagged.”

Macaskill says there needs to be a debate about the moral framework in which technology is used, especially for the most vulnerable. “Do we have a right to human care? Do we want a machine to hold our hands as we die? Does the machine have the intuitive ability to know our fear and to soothe our anxiety? It is these questions which lie at the heart of the debate we need to have around human rights and technology.”

 “Right trousers” project. Photograph: John von Radowitz/PA Wire/PA Images

Those at the forefront of technology in care stress that nothing can replace the direct contact offered by care workers. Emerging solutions are more likely to alter existing jobs than eliminate them, according to a recent report by the RSA.

Carey Bloomer is managing director at Marches Care, which runs The Uplands, an 81-bed care home in Shrewsbury. Bloomer, a registered nurse manager, says technology should enhance a care worker’s role, not replace it. She describes how a non-verbal stroke survivor in his 70s recently Skyped his daughter in Italy with the support of his care worker.

The Uplands uses care management software and has a data-sharing system with the NHS. Staff at the home, which specialises in end-of-life, nursing and dementia care, also record bed occupancy rates and medication electronically. Bloomer says: “Care staff use a mobile-point-of-care tool, so they have a telephone they input their caregiving directly into. It cuts down the time they spend documenting what they do, so they can spend time talking to residents.”

Mick Ward, chief officer for transformation and innovation, adults and health, at Leeds city council, says that in the future: “I’d expect to see basic digital skills and training opportunities in [care work] job descriptions.”

He does not envisage a sudden mushrooming of tech jobs in tomorrow’s care homes, “but maybe among the very big providers with dozens of homes scattered around country, there may well be a specialist tech side around back-office functions like care records or medicine management”.

As part of a new collaboration between UWE and the ExtraCare Charitable Trust, a retirement-care provider, a university expert will test new technologies at the charity’s retirement villages. In the future, Praminda Caleb-Solly, UWE professor in assistive robotics and intelligent health technologies, expects “more tech-specific staff working across the care sector”. Caleb-Solly’s team is scoping new study programmes to equip the next generation of care workers with skills to use assistive robotic and digital health solutions currently in development.

Caleb-Solly argues that new technologies will help with the recruitment of care workers: “The incorporation of technology, which supports and assists their work, could not only make the work more desirable to more people, but also attract people with a range of other skills into care.”

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