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Social care workforce: How can digital help address the challenges we face across the sector?

As the headline sponsors for ADASS Spring Seminar 2024, at Channel 3 Consulting we are taking each of the three core themes of the event in turn and exploring how digital can help deliver improved outcomes.

First up was the topic of carers, which was covered Dr Emma Garland in her blog, Using digital to super-charge support for unpaid carers in the UK social care sector. This time, social worker and consultant Nyasha Fumhanda looks at the challenges surrounding the social care workforce.

Social care workforce – the challenge

Nine years in adult social care – as a carer, across domiciliary and residential settings, and as a social worker – have given me a firsthand look at the workforce crisis and its devastating impact on the sector.  The evidence is undeniable: we’re simply understaffed to meet the needs of those who rely on us. People are living longer, but often with a declining quality of life, and increasing need. 

The pressure on the profession is immense and often leads to burnout, with many (like me) taking a break from, or leaving, the profession altogether.

A career in social care is no longer attractive or competitive, which fails to attract or retain the skilled professionals we desperately need such as occupational therapists and social workers. Both local authorities and private providers grapple with this staffing shortage, which is a problem that only worsens as demand continues to rise.

Key social care workforce stats

Social care workforce stats

Source: The state of the adult social care sector and workforce in England, published October 2023 (data correct as of 2022/23)

The social care sector faces a critical staffing crisis

Low wages are a major culprit, with some domiciliary carers earning less than the minimum wage due to unpaid travel time. Furthermore, limited career progression opportunities and a lack of investment in training and development leave front-line staff feeling undervalued and with little room for growth.  Funding constraints force many councils to leave vacancies unfilled, even if they could attract potential employees.

The impact of this on the sector and the outcomes it can deliver for people is significant. Examples include:

In short, we do not have enough people in adult social care to deliver the care that is required. This challenge is only set to get worse in the coming years. Something must change. The sector cannot continue to simply do more of the same.

How is the ASC sector trying to address the workforce challenge?

Skills for Care is leading a process to develop a workforce strategy for the next 15 years with leaders from across the sector, the regulators, the NHS and Education and Training. The Social Care Leaders Vision for a Future Workforce Strategy offers a preview ahead of the full strategy being published in the summer. It will take account of innovation such as digital and technology enabling people’s lives and the workforce. It also promises to incorporate the principles of the Care Act 2014 for the social care workforce: empowerment of people, prevention, proportionality, protection, partnership with services offering local solutions to their communities and accountability and transparency.

As the delivery of the strategy progresses, based on the conversations we have had across the sector, the role of digital will be an important one. Not necessarily a central role, where the sector is moulded around digital, but instead it will be infused throughout the progress that is made. Digital will be the strongest catalyst for addressing the sector’s workforce challenges.

There have been and are several government policy initiatives focused on addressing the social care workforce challenge for several years, which include:

These interventions are welcomed by a sector that continues to be under relentless pressure, but on their own they will not resolve the workforce challenge as demand continues to outstrip supply in the coming years.

How can digital help address the social care workforce challenge?

There is a wide range of digital solutions and interventions that can help address the workforce challenge in adult social care and the wider health system. Some of them directly impact the workforce, eg virtual care solutions improving staff productivity, work-life balance and wellbeing, whilst others have an indirect impact, eg front door self-serve solutions freeing up workforce capacity by reducing demand flowing into social care teams.

Delivered together as part of a holistic transformation approach, enabled by digital, these solutions can play a significant role in helping to address the workforce challenge whilst improving outcomes for people.

Example digital solutions

Using digital solutions to enable virtual consultations with people at home or in their communities. Regular virtual consultations can help improve productivity, reduce the environmental impact of in-person visits and free up time for healthcare providers to visit and spend more time with patients who require in-person consultations. It can also help support the overall wellbeing of a wider group of patients and enable early identification of potential health issues that require intervention. Furthermore, virtual care can help improve the work-life balance and wellbeing of healthcare staff.

Using digital tools to automate administrative processes and remove the reliance on paper / people, to improve productivity and free up staff time. Digital social care records within care providers are a good example of RPA as are AI solutions that can produce a summary of a care visit / consultation to save staff time in writing up notes after each visit.

These enable staff to identify people most at risk who should be prioritised for support, helping to reduce the numbers of people going into crisis. They can be deployed to help manage waiting lists or to avoid specific demand types, eg falls prevention.

There are a range of digital solutions that can enable people to self-serve and access support without the need for input from social care. These include digital Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) platforms and AI Chatbots that can facilitate strength-based conversations and signpost to community support.

These solutions can be deployed to help people self-manage at home or in their communities, whilst also providing new data insights to help inform preventative / proactive analytics and intervention. This in turn reduces the traditional reliance on people to people support.

The potential impact of this on workforce productivity and the improved outcomes the sector can deliver for people is too complex to quantify – but we can be sure it will be transformative. Enabling senior health and care professionals to work in this way, may also be a way to prevent the droves of experienced staff leaving the profession that we see today. It will also be a way to attract the next generation of digitally savvy care professionals who are looking for something different to the traditional career paths and ways of working we foster today.

Next steps

As we look forward the workforce challenge will continue to add pressure to a system that is already at breaking point. It is right that the sector focuses on investing in the social care workforce – they will always be the bedrock of care and support provided and will never be replaced by digital solutions.

Yet, as we have outlined above, there is a range of digital solutions that can contribute to solving the workforce challenge and play a positive role in moving to a model of care and support that is much more sustainable and able to meet the demands being placed on the system. Moving to a digitally enabled workforce will help care professionals be more productive, whilst delivering improved outcomes for people.

If you would like to know more, please get in touch. We look forward to engaging with as many of you as possible and continuing to help deliver a digitally enabled future for social care.

Nyasha Fumhanda

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

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