Richard Parkinson, Director at digital connectivity consultancy FarrPoint image
Richard Parkinson, Director at FarrPoint

In this article, Richard Parkinson, Director at digital connectivity consultancy FarrPoint, discusses what the analogue switch-off means for telecare service users and providers, as the 2025 switch off date fast approaches.

The UK’s telecare sector is on the cusp of fundamental change; one that is set to provide both opportunities and challenges for councils and telecare providers up and down the country.

This change is mainly driven by telecom providers’ plans to switch off the old analogue phone network (PSTN) and migrate all customers over to digital services by the end of 2025.

The move has been named the ‘Analogue Switch Off’.

Phone lines are already being moved to digital, and the switch off will also see Openreach no longer providing new analogue products in 118 exchange areas from this year, effectively accelerating the migration of legacy phone services to digital equivalents.

The move is a tremendous shake-up of the telecare industry, and some providers are aiming to get ahead of the curve by switching off their analogue services before the deadline, emphasising the importance of starting migration planning right now. This represents a significant investment in technology, although it is only the first step towards a wider transformation of health and care. But what will the switch off mean for both telecare service users and providers?

Snapshot of the current landscape

We recently worked with TEC Cymru, the programme responsible for supporting the shift to technology-enabled care in Wales, to conduct the first-ever Wales-wide analysis of telecare usage. Our research found that, despite the digital switchover being just three years away, only three councils in Wales (out of 13 respondents) are currently using digital telecare technologies. Additionally, more than two-thirds of the councils we spoke to are concerned about their ability to effectively manage the digital switchover and fewer than one in five have a strategy in place to manage the transition.

The outlook is similar across the UK, but the good news for users is that more than two-thirds of councils surveyed in Wales are using the move from analogue to digital technology to enhance their telecare service offering. And with the UK experiencing huge demographic changes – by 2030 there is expected to be more than 7.3 million people aged over 75 in the UK – this will bring real benefits to service users, telecare providers, and the wider health and care system, not to mention an estimated £14.5 billion worth of savings to the UK’s care providers over the next decade.

Switching like for like

Telecare service users image

Telecoms providers are moving their customers from the analogue communication networks over a relatively short period of time. Some telecare providers are therefore understandably looking to minimise the degree of change (and subsequent risk and disruption) by moving their services to digital equivalents on a like-for-like basis. This approach is valid as it reduces the risk and ensures services remain reliable, but it must be seen as the first step of a wider ongoing transformation programme. The technology foundations the initial move to digital provides can then be used to deliver further service improvements, some of which we’ve outlined below.

Of course, even a like-for-like shift of the service offers several benefits – such as faster call connection times and improved system monitoring and reliability. This approach to handling the digital switchover, however, isn’t without its challenges.

The knowledge gap

Historically, telecare has often been delivered with limited input from IT staff, but digital technology requires deeper specialist knowledge. Even if a provider is simply switching to digital on a like-for-like basis, digital telecare is reliant on a range of wider IT infrastructure, such as internet connectivity, telephony, security, and potentially cloud-based services to operate correctly, and these systems require IT trained staff to design and manage them. Operational processes also need to change to ensure that the additional information digital systems provide is monitored and responded to appropriately.

A digital boost to services

Without doubt, the move to digital telecare technology provides a huge opportunity for providers to review their service and how it is delivered, improving services and efficiency and ensuring the capabilities of their upgraded telecare solution are fully exploited.

As an example, digital technology can provide a greater degree of flexibility in the routing of service users’ calls. This means that call handling arrangements can be improved, such as sending calls to other providers for business continuity, or using home-based call handlers to assist for short periods during peaks in call volumes. Automation of some call types is also possible, freeing up staff to concentrate on tasks that require the ‘human touch’.

Digital telecare increases the ability to utilise smart consumer technology instead of just dedicated telecare devices. Calls can be taken from users’ phones and other smart devices, broadening the reach of telecare services, both inside and out of the user’s home. This can also help attract users who may have historically seen a stigma associated with using traditional analogue telecare equipment in favour of equipment that look like smartwatches or devices.

In parallel with this, an increasing range of telehealth services are also being developed. Combined with the drive to integrate health and care from an organisational perspective, this means that the longer-term goal for digital transformation must be to integrate telehealth and telecare to provide a single person-centred service, which wouldn’t be possible without the innovations digital can bring.

The benefits that will come from this combined service are significant; data on users, collected from a range of services and devices, will be accessible to clinicians and care staff from a single location. Analytics can also be used to monitor users’ health and wellbeing, highlighting where preventative advice, care, or other interventions are required.

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Looking ahead

With three years until the move to digital telephony is completed, telecare providers need a roadmap to ensure they understand how they will move to digital and maximise the benefits that digital can bring. There are organisations that can provide this practical and strategic support to telecare providers, helping them take the all-important first steps in planning their migration.

While 2025 might still feel a while away, this is not a time for inaction. Service users are being migrated to digital phone lines today, and this is causing increasing issues for providers, this is a process that will only accelerate as 2025 draws nearer. Plans for moving to digital telecare should be put in place soon and can then be implemented over the next three years. This early planning ensures telecare services remain reliable, and that the benefits digital technology offers start to be seen.

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