Academics, health and social care providers, Serco representatives and other technology experts at the University of Lincoln
Academics, health and social care providers, Serco representatives and other technology experts at the University of Lincoln

New research from the University of Lincoln has found that sensors, including cameras, temperature and movement monitors, are ideal for safely observing vulnerable people in their homes and supporting face-to-face care appointments.

The findings form part of a wider research paper examining how modern and cost-effective assistive technology can be used to improve independent living for vulnerable adults, such as elderly or disabled people and those recovering from illness or returning home after hospital treatment.

The ‘Social Care Technology Innovation for the Citizens of Lincolnshire’ project has involved seven months of work between the University of Lincoln, public services provider Serco, and Lincolnshire County Council. They have jointly examined how assistive technology could help adults with health and social care needs live more independently and safely within their own homes for longer.

The starting point was to consider how assistive technologies, such as smartphones, apps, wearables, remote sensors and digital sensors, could help people complete everyday tasks like cooking, bathing, leisure and social participation, while also monitoring and supporting other individual health needs.

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These demands are becoming increasingly crucial for the 8,905 adults in Lincolnshire who require long-term assistance with their mental health, learning disabilities and physical or social requirements, and who are currently supported each year by Lincolnshire County Council, according to the university.

This scenario is further being played out across the UK where the adult social care sector is being reformed, with a 1.25 percent Health and Social Care Levy to ringfence funding for health and social care and significant changes to the social care charging system.

Dr Salah Al-Majeed, Deputy Head of the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, said: “Technology offers increasing potential for new methods of diagnosing, detecting and monitoring warning signs in vulnerable adults, and can also serve to connect friends, families, carers and communities within a wider web of support.

“At the same time, mainstream tech can’t do everything – it can’t [yet] put you to bed, clean or hug you, but modern, prevalent devices including remote-sensing, wearable-tech, machine learning and AI can free up time to allow social workers, occupational therapists and professional carers to apply their valuable skills, experience and knowledge.

“Our work has identified multiple ways in which home care technology could be improved to better suit care recipients.”

The project outcomes were presented at a recent event held at the University of Lincoln, which brought together over 45 academics, health and social care providers, Serco representatives and other technology experts, to discuss the headline findings.

These findings indicated that:

  • Understanding how care technologies work and are interacted with needs to be carefully considered, particular for elderly people
  • Everyday, low-cost technology able to network and interface with the internet is an ideal choice to help people, rather than expensive, bespoke/specialist devices
  • Sensors, including cameras, temperature and movement monitors, are ideal for keeping vulnerable people safe in their homes, and can also support care staff in their work
  • While privacy concerns are valid, there is much research supporting the preservation of privacy within home monitoring systems

Dr Al-Majeed continued: “Looking to the future the next stages of this project will be to develop ‘IDEAL’ – an ‘Integrated Device Ecosystem for Assisted Living,’ which will act as a centralised hub for inter-device communication in homes.

“At the moment there are plenty of Internet-linked devices that can act as AT, but getting technology from different manufacturers to connect and cooperate is very difficult. IDEAL will increase care-recipient independence and decrease carer workloads by allowing people to be cared for in the comfort of their own homes for longer.”

The study also explored how assistive technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics could support people in and around their homes.

According to the findings, AI and robotics systems can serve a wide variety of patient needs, including guidance and route planning, medication reminders, providing company through socially assistive robotics, and physical help with patient transport, lifting and feeding. However, the University of Lincoln study found that societal and ethical challenges surrounding Human-Robot Interaction (HRI) are a potential obstacle, and some patients are uncomfortable with the idea of a live-in robot assistant.

Glen Garrod, Executive Director – Adult Care and Community Wellbeing, Lincolnshire County Council, said: “Many people’s needs can be met online and digital may be the way forward, particularly given the resources identified and the clear link with the Government’s White Paper on Social Care Reform, the Integration White Paper and the Health and Social Care Bill.

“To be successful in the future will require new ways of thinking and the use of devices, often already in the home, which can be used to help people be more independent, resilient and remain connected into the local community. There should also be benefits for front-line practitioners in health and social care in helping to better manage pressures of work.

“Lincolnshire is the fourth most dispersed county and for adults with autism, learning difficulties and mental health issues, staying connected and battling isolation are among the biggest challenges.

“The University of Lincoln’s plan for a Centre of Excellence should begin as a three-to-five-year proposal. We’ve got to think ‘big’ and long-term for the potential of digital and robotic assistance and, if the evidence is there, we will help fund and support this initiative.”

In previous research from the University of Lincoln, Serco, and Lincolnshire County Council, they found that the introduction of telehealth to vulnerable residents could be a social care “game-changer”.

Early findings indicated that telehealth could offer the NHS and those it helps improved patient discharge support, reduced patient waiting times, improved medical reviews, reduced unnecessary clinical visits, and more.

Commenting on the latest research findings, Ben Johnson, Serco Head of Technology within Local Government Partnerships, said: “The University of Lincoln’s research shows that technology has a significant role to play in health care quality, effectiveness and efficiency in both a support and preventative capacity.

“As part of this project Serco and the University of Lincoln have met with start-up tech organisations with exciting new ideas offering significant improvements to the quality of life for care recipients. We are beginning to see the first signs of the Government’s social care transformation plan emerge and the timing of this collaborative research could not be more significant.

“The findings highlight key opportunities and challenges as to how we must innovate and deliver high quality, next generation and accessible social and health care services to UK citizens.”

As a joint effort, the University of Lincoln is also looking to lead on the creation of a ‘UK Centre of Excellence for Health & Social Care Innovation’, which will be based on at the university. This centre will establish long-term research and development projects to tackle a multitude of current and future challenges within the care sector, bringing together expertise and providing well-framed outcomes for local and national communities.

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