The Digital Era Transforms Health and Social Care

Inside hospitals and care homes across the UK, digital technology is improving the landscape – the quality of care, the patient’s well-being, and staff efficiency.

It’s a critical advance, as an estimated 325,000 older people live in care homes in England. Care home residents have up to 50 percent more emergency admissions and A&E attendances than the general population of over 75-year-olds, and 42 percent of those admitted from care homes are in the last six months of life.

The digital transformation involves a wide range of digital medical devices, software platforms, applications (apps), video, tablets, smartphones, and social media platforms. Studies have revealed that these innovations are making a really positive impact in patient care – and can be readily adapted to care homes.

Adult social care sector has embraced digital technology

Skills for Care’s managers and staff use digital technology in adult social care services, and believe digital technology has improved their efficiency and quality of care services. The technologies are most commonly used in electronic records, business administration and communications. However, technology is also significantly impacting the delivery of care and support services.

While 75 percent of healthcare organisations use digital technologies to plan and record services, more than half use them directly with the people they support – to enhance communication between patients and their family and friends, to organise leisure activities for patients, and to help people plan their own care and support.

Real results in patients’ lives

Telemedicine, also called telehealth, is really taking hold – offering patients and staff a virtual connection with medical staff.

WWT Asynchrony Labs provides kits with sensitive two-way cameras for patients to talk with medical staff (similar to Skype) as well as blood pressure and blood oxygenation monitors – a virtual checkup.  

These virtual visits from doctors, delivered via portable video devices, save lives. Having a doctor regularly check in helps avoid tragedy from stroke or heart attack.

Mercy Virtual, which trialed virtual checkups in the US, found that:

  • Patients spent 30 percent less time in hospital on average.
  • Deaths from septic shock fell by 60 percent.
  • NHS costs per patient could be cut by up to 60 percent.

A Telehealth Hub centred at Airedale Hospital provides services to 210 nursing and residential care homes. Access is available 24/7, via a two-way secure video link between patients and a clinician. An audit showed:

  • 35 percent reduction in hospital admissions
  • 53 percent drop in A&E use
  • Hospital bed days were down 59 percent

Monitoring physiological changes

In care homes, remote monitoring of patients’ physiological measurements has been studied extensively. Daily physiological monitoring of all residents, assisted by telehealth, is estimated at saving more than +£33,400 a year for the nursing home.

One analysis showed:

  •  58% reduction in GP visits
  •  70% reduction in emergency admissions
  •  30% reduction in hospital length-of-stay

Measuring nutrition and hydration

Nutritional status of care home residents is frequently monitored through weighing. Several digital weighing scales can transmit data into an electronic care record via Wifi or Bluetooth. Electronic reporting of food and drink intake provides a more detailed assessment of nutritional status and active monitoring of hydration.

Medication management

Medication compliance and safety always concerns in care homes. Technology can improve each step of medication management:

  • Medication Administrations Records (MAR) software allows nurses to timestamp when they deliver a medicine to a patient and record a missed administration
  • Automatic reminders for delivering patient medication
  • Electronic pill dispensers and intelligent medicine cabinets keep medicines safe and secure

“Smart pills” are in development stages, will combine sensor technology with drugs, and are small enough to be swallowed. The pill dissolves in the stomach, which activates the sensor and transmits data to both a smartphone app and a patch worn on the body. Clinicians can monitor patients’ compliance with prescriptions.

Falls prevention

Falls are believed to be the primary cause of deaths in people age 65 and over. Care homes must be ready to respond and manage the medical response to a fall, which will involve long-term care.

Several technological solutions can assist with fall detection and response. These include wristwatch-style devices, pendants worn around the neck, devices worn as a belt or clipped to clothes. These use accelerometers to detect impacts, which activates communication to a call operator -- who contacts the appropriate emergency contact.

Mental stimulation for dementia patients

Reminiscence therapy technology and special sensory rooms are very effective in residential care homes with dementia patients. Care home activity coordinators work with iPads alongside the dementia patients – playing songs and games, and showing films. Hand-held PCs can enable video communication with family members.

The personal touch

Mycarematters seeks to improve the personal quality of person-centred care. The system provides a log for “facts-at-a-glance” of each patient’s likes and dislikes, including music and food, often based on family input at admission. The one-page sheet can be accessed from any digital device using the patient’s mycarematters code, and helps nursing and medical staff get familiar with the patients before they meet them – which helps build trust.

Digital pens and tablets result in “best” in patient safety

Morse, a community-based tablet system, has been adopted by the NHS after the successful implementation of digital pen technology and digital wards. Western Isles health board saw important improvements in face-to-face patient time using this technology. The board has gone from having the worst handovers in Scotland to the best in terms of patient safety.

First digital apps declared safe by CQC

Smartphone apps Now GP and Dr Now are the world’s first health apps to both diagnose and deliver medicines, connecting patients to NHS GPs via smartphone video call. The services currently serve over one million users, with insurers such as Thomas Cook and Cigna using the platform to provide their customers with convenient, flexible healthcare. Care Quality Commission (CQC) has declared these mobile apps to be “safe” – the first apps to get that designation.

Apps tracking the blues

Ginger.io is a sophisticated app for people with depression, as they track their own moods. This is combined with data collected from smartphone sensors that track their movements, social app or telephone use. The data can be shared with clinicians and provides an intervention when data suggests they might benefit from support.

Diabetes app to monitor glucose, insulin

Smartphones can provide a hub for diagnostic and treatment technologies. Patients with diabetes can get continuous glucose and insulin-delivery systems that are controlled by smartphones. The app adapts the insulin delivery algorithms to match each person’s physiology.

Cloud-based docs and social media

Facebook and Google docs are also integrated into a residential support home for people with autism. Staff use Google Docs for administration, and Facebook for communication. The support home has over 12,000 likes on their Facebook page, and use posts to share the day’s leisure activities with residents’ families and friends; the page is also their main recruitment tool.

Peer-to-peer support networks

Along with Twitter and Facebook, MedHelp, PatientsLikeMe and HealthUnlocked are social networks where patients and healthcare staff can engage to support each other, share learning and compare best practices.

Communities contributing to research

Online communities are contributing to research about their health conditions, offering people the chance to be ‘data donors’ and providing a simple way to share their data with researchers. PatientsLikeMe has contributed to nearly 70 published studies, including a study credited with new discoveries about the disease progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Taking technology to your care home

Do you dig digital technology? Very often, the person introducing the technology to the workplace is simply a digital enthusiast on staff, not “tech wizards.” The Guardian summed it up nicely: “Every social care organisation has digital enthusiasts, including managers, staff, volunteers and other people using their services.”

Which of these digital tech ideas will you take to your workplace?

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