Perhaps 2016 will be remembered as the year the UK social care services reached crisis point.
The headlines were bleak: significant funding gaps in community services for older people, which could increase to £2.6bn by 2020; delays in dischargingmedically fit patients from hospital; regular breaches of safe hospital bed occupancy levels; a misalignment between government and the health and care sectors.
This should be the year that social care and healthcare finally start working together effectively
The 6% council tax rise announced in December is a start, but it diverts funds from housing and will leave some taxpayers out of pocket. What’s more, it will do little to ease the pressure of an ageing population, struggling without informal or formal care at home and faced with underpaid and overworked care staff battling an overstretched system.
Something has to change – and, fortunately, there are several ways we can begin to work towards a solution in 2017.
This should be the year that social care and healthcare finally start working together effectively. By integrating the two – something that has never happened since the NHS was founded in 1948 – care can become the seamless experience our older population deserves. There will of course need to be a culture shift for those working in the system, but the result would mean that medical treatment need no longer be detached from routine care in nursing homes and, importantly, we will be able to squeeze out more pennies from every taxpayer pound. There are already promising signs – local authorities should look to Greater Manchester which, in April 2016, became the first locality in England to merge its health and social care sectors and take control of its own budgets.
The key to achieving this joined-up system is technology. Digital innovation has the potential to transform a sector that is currently disjointed and overcrowded, in which more than 8,000 different companies provide dramatically different standards of care.
Technology companies such as Google DeepMind, Cera and Babylon made progress in 2016, making care more transparent, reliable and responsive. They offer new ideas, such as medical advice from your smartphone, on-demand visits from care workers and advances in medical research using artificial intelligence. Soon, GPs will be able to tap in to digital medical records, updated by care workers, which should work to further simplify the relationship between these complex services.
Yet without changing the way in which we pay for social care, such improvements will be short-lived. Funding must be comprehensive, sustainable and designed for the long term. Currently, almost 50% of social care in the UK is self-funded, a cost that is too often treated as a late-in-life surprise rather than something that can be planned for throughout our working lives. Short-term cash injections are not the answer.
A number of different proposals have been broached that must be considered in the coming months. Some recommend merging the pots for benefit entitlements, pensions and care; others suggest amending the triple-lock on pensions to free up funds. Alternatives include insurance schemes for social care, or a move towards encouraging young adults to start saving for their own future care needs.
Whichever path we choose, there is no doubt that the current social care system needs to be reinvented. The first steps must be taken this year. With advances in technology and service integration starting to show promise, we already have the tools we need at our fingertips.