Robots could transform UK social care sector

16 November 2020 5 min. read

The UK’s social care sector is facing a number of growing strains on its depleted resources. As carers are asked to do more with less, a new report suggests that embracing technology could be key to their success.

Traditional forecasts of ageing, including those based on the number and proportion of those aged 65 and older, show that Britain’s population is ageing at a significant rate. In 2018, 18% of the UK population was aged 65 years and over, compared with 10.8% in 1950. At the current rate, in the next 30 years that portion will rise to 24.8% – almost a quarter of the country.

This is already placing notable strain on the National Health Service and the country’s pension pots – but in the coming years it is also pushing the country’s social care system to breaking point. While the growing number of senior citizens unable to care for themselves, or who require support to see out their final days comfortably, is similarly spiking in countries such as Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Japan, however, a severe lack of funding in the UK means the social care sector is being swamped by demand.

Robots could transform UK social care sector

According to a new study from advisory firm PA Consulting, a key way of addressing the situation may be the deployment of robotic solutions. The research suggests that the coronavirus pandemic raised the prominence of technology in care, as many organisations looked to do more with less across a range of different lines of work. For example, collaborative robots ( or ‘cobots’) – have been piloted to support protect carers as they deliver physical care, and lift or move care receivers.

PA itself recently collaborated with Argenti Care Technology Partnership and Hampshire County Council to launch the first-ever collaborative robots in the UK care sector.

Current estimates suggest that 800,000 new social care workers will be needed to meet with demand by 2035, while there is a £6 billion funding gap which must be plugged to staff this. At present, these resources are not available to the sector, and PA’s report contends that cobots are just one way of enabling carers to cover more ground without sacrificing their own welfare.

Graham Allen, Director of Adults’ Health & Care, Hampshire County Council said, “There simply isn’t a workforce we can grow fast enough unless we try to innovate and do things differently. If you focus on the outcome then you can use a range of different mechanisms to achieve it. If you think the only resources at your disposal are care staff, you’re constrained.”

PA’s report suggests that carers in Hampshire involved in the cobot trial are reporting a significant reduction in fatigue and strain on their bodies when they provide physical support to service users. Meanwhile, the white paper contends that there are indications that care for a person with complex needs, which may previously have required two carers working together, can in some instances be delivered by a single individual using a cobot and other specialist equipment. While the pilot is still exploring legislative, regulatory and procurement factors relating to the technology, the trial seems to support the use of technology to help carers cope with their increasing workload.

Similarly, PA’s researchers also highlight a number of other technological advances which may soon enter the industry. These include semi-humanoid robots, which can mimic human characteristics to help facilitate social interaction with people living with dementia or with autism spectrum disorder. Robotic animals could also be deployed to serve as companions with people living with dementia or learning disabilities, while digital assistants could be used to help support home care needs, making it easier for individuals to control their environment despite suffering from declining health.

Robotics may also help provide care in future pandemics, or during a further resurgence of Covid-19. PA is also working with almost 70 different municipalities in Norway to support the implementation of medicine robots. The devices help people take their medication independently for up to 28 days, while providing an alert to carers if a dose is missed.

Before the pandemic, this freed carers to focus on other aspects of care – but during the pandemic, a second benefit emerged, as this also reduced the number of visits a carer had to make to a service user, limiting direct contact. As 29.3% of all deaths of care home residents during the UK’s first Covid-19 wave, this kind of technology could prove a crucial way to prevent infections.

Steve Carefull, Social Care Technology lead at PA Consulting, commented, “Now is the moment for care leaders to act. The coronavirus pandemic raised the prominence of care workers as they placed themselves and their families at risk to support society’s most vulnerable. The pandemic also accelerated technology adoption, with innovative approaches being implemented much more rapidly than before.”

 “Our collaboration with leaders in adult social services has shown the potential for robotic technologies to transform care. Working together, we can choose to create a future where robotics unlocks new opportunities and efficiencies… and where we create a positive human future in a technology-driven world.”