0203 866 4838 Contact us

Using digital to super-charge support for unpaid carers in the UK social care sector

Channel 3's Dr Emma Garland outlines the well-known challenges faced by health and social care systems in providing the right support at the right time to unpaid carers and suggests using digital to supercharge their approach.

Channel 3 is the proud headline sponsor of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) Spring Seminar 2024. One of the key themes at this year’s event is carers and the Channel 3 team looks forward to sharing our insights and experience of applying a digital lens to this important topic.

Without unpaid carers, our health and social care system would collapse. Unpaid carers contribute £445 million to the economy every day and provide significant levels of support equivalent to four million paid care workers. Whilst caring can be positive and rewarding, there are lots of reasons why unpaid carers often need support with their own health and wellbeing. Many carers go to bed not knowing how much sleep they will get or whether they will be able to do what they planned to do the following day, many are living in poverty or finding it impossible to juggle work with caring responsibilities, and many are struggling with their own physical and mental health.

Insights show that life is not easy for unpaid carers

A carer is anyone who looks after a family member, partner, or friend who needs help because of their illness, frailty, disability, mental health problem, or addiction and cannot cope without their support. The care they give is unpaid. Becoming an unpaid carer can happen at any time – sometimes gradually or sometimes overnight. Compared to a decade ago, not only are there more people providing unpaid care, but the number of hours spent providing care is higher than ever before.

– There are 5.7 million unpaid carers across the UK (around 9% of the population), but Carers UK estimates this figure could be as high as 10.6 million.

Around 260,000 more people are providing 20-49 hours of unpaid care for a relative each week, and a further 152,000 people are providing upwards of 50 hours of care each week.

– Many unpaid carers are struggling to cope, with the top three challenges being managing stress and responsibility (71%); negative impacts on their physical and mental health (70%); and not being able to take time away from caring (66%).

– Many carers are feeling burnt out, isolated and neglected – we are now at the point where almost two-thirds of unpaid carers have had to either give up work completely or significantly reduce their hours because of their caring role and only 55% feel they get the support they need.

Yet unpaid carers are not always able to access the support they need, despite being a high priority for national Government and local authorities alike. Over the next two years, additional Government funding has been earmarked for unpaid carers to enable Councils to improve their local offer. This presents a great opportunity for the sector to innovate and transform the current model of care, including harnessing the power of digital tools and technologies to broaden and improve information and advice, accessibility, coproduction, commissioning, and most importantly, unpaid carers’ quality of life.

Change in requests for support and direct support provided to carers by local authorities since 2014/15

Unpaid carer requests
Source: Institute for Government analysis of NHS Digital

We know that the failure to provide proper ongoing support for unpaid carers increases the risk of informal care arrangements breaking down, in which case the responsibility of providing care usually falls wholly on the local authority. Yet unpaid carers and Councils face a variety of challenges in ensuring the right support is accessible at the right time. Firstly, it can be difficult for Councils to identify unpaid carers. Many people see themselves as simply providing care for a loved one and do not therefore identify as a ‘carer’. Only a small percentage of unpaid carers approach their local authority for help; in 2021 for example, only 8% of carers in England did so and only 27% of those ended up receiving direct support. Unpaid carers also find it difficult to navigate the complex and disjointed health and social care system, which restricts their ability to access information, advice, and support when they need it. This is particularly so at crucial transition points, such as hospital discharge.

Fewer than 1 in 10 carers requested support from their local authority, and only a quarter of requests resulted in direct support

UK unpaid carer support requests
Source: The Health Foundation

There is also a perception that statutory support is only available/provided when unpaid carers are at ‘breaking point’, leading to many only reaching out for support when they are in crisis. This reduces the opportunity for early intervention and prevention support, often resulting in the need for more costly formal services. With so many unpaid carers remaining ‘hidden’, it is also difficult for Councils to commission a range of support that meets their diverse needs and circumstances. Most local authorities place coproduction at the heart of what they do, but despite their best intentions, surveys of unpaid carers suggest that services do not always reflect what they want or need.

The impact value of unpaid carers cannot be understated, and in recognition of this, we are seeing increased focus and prioritisation within the sector. On 15 March the Department for Health and Social Care announced that they were earmarking £327 million for the Better Care Fund to empower local authorities to provide advice, support, short breaks, and respite services for unpaid carers and Accelerating Reform Fund monies are also being specifically targeted at supporting unpaid carers. The sharing of best practice is being promoted through the Carers Challenge 2023 led by ADASS, the Carers Trust, and Carers UK, which aims to inspire new ways to support unpaid carers. As part of the challenge, social care teams and their partners in integrated care systems and communities were invited to put forward examples of what they’re doing to improve support for carers for collation into an online resource. This will no doubt support local authorities to prepare for the new CQC inspection regime which will place increased pressure on Councils to evidence how they are discharging their duties towards unpaid carers under the Care Act (2014).

Increased funding is always good, as is the sharing of best practice, but can we go further to make a real step change in how we support unpaid carers? Rather than doing more of the same, can we challenge ourselves, re-think our ambition and explore how we can make the shift from a reactive, crisis-driven model of support for unpaid carers to one that is proactive, personalised and preventative? At Channel 3 Consulting, we believe that digital tools and solutions provide the opportunity for local authorities to reimagine how they deliver care and support. We know that digital isn’t the answer to everything, and it certainly isn’t a replacement for unpaid carers themselves – but there are now a plethora of digital tools, services, and solutions available that, if deployed effectively, can help to make their lives easier and support them to sustain their caring role.

We can build a better future for unpaid carers, where they…

They are recognised as an unpaid carer through targeted marketing so they know where to go for support and receive that support directly to their inbox.

They can access information, advice and coaching through a variety of channels in a format and language that is accessible to them.

They are known to the local authority and receive strengths-based targeted early support before they fall into crisis, reducing the risk of carer breakdown.

They don’t just have to rely on ‘traditional services’, but can access a diverse range of support that meets their personal needs because commissioners have improved access to data and insights about the unpaid carers in their area and actively engage them in meaningful coproduction.

They feel confident and empowered to continue working, go to the hairdressers or pop out for a coffee with friends, all in the knowledge that they can check on their loved one at a distance using remote monitoring solutions and other technology-enabled care products that have been deployed at scale.

They feel less isolated and can connect with each other online or via WhatsApp to access peer-to-peer support when they need it not just during working hours.

They only need to tell their story once because information is shared effectively across the health and social care system.

Unpaid carer support with digital

Empowering, supporting and improving the quality of life for unpaid carers

Unpaid carers play a vital role in keeping our health and social care system going, especially in the context of increasing demand, complexity, and ongoing workforce pressures. Yet we know, because carers themselves tell us, that more needs to be done to ensure they get the right support at the right time. Given that 3 out of 5 of us will be a carer in our lifetime, it’s good to know that we are moving in the right direction; peer-to-peer learning from within the sector itself will provide inspiration and additional funding from central Government will empower local authorities to implement solutions tailored to their local circumstances. Unpaid carers should be at the heart of shaping what this new future looks like as, after all, they are the experts by experience. But local authorities should also consider how digital technologies and solutions can support them to move from a crisis-driven model of support to one that is more proactive and preventative. By this we mean a digitally enabled approach that would enable them to identify hidden carers, target early help and intervention, increase access to advice and information, provide practical support, and shape commissioned services through an improved understanding of the diverse needs of carers within their locality. But most importantly, we’d like to see a digitally enabled approach that helps to improve the quality of life for unpaid carers by giving them choice, control and opportunity.

What can you do next?

Channel 3 Consulting is delighted to announce that we are headline sponsors of this year’s ADASS Spring Seminar 2024, which takes place on 24th-26th April at Wyboston Lakes, Bedfordshire. This important annual event brings together social care leaders, professionals and those with lived experience to network, learn about the critical issues and trends in adult social care, and share best practices. Learn more here.

In parallel with our preparations for the Spring Seminar, Channel 3 will also be attending the Care Show in London, where Dr Emma Garland will be speaking and sharing our insights on the importance of cultural change through digital transformation and what it takes to deliver it successfully.

Dr Emma Garland

Get in touch to find out more about how we can help your organisation capture and realise your digital vision.

Call 0203 866 4838 or email info@channel3consulting.co.uk

Contact us