Befriending Alexa: what the arrival of the tech giants means for your care offer

Apple, Google and Amazon are wising up to care opportunities with their tech, but are local authorities positioned to benefit? A shift in the care technology landscape is coming, says Sam Bassett

Future-proofing our care tech hasn’t been a huge concern over the last 15 or 20 years. After all, the offer from the main telecare operators who dominate the sector has arguably evolved little in that time. Risk-averse local authorities have found it easy to be led by suppliers, and economies of scale have given big players scant incentive to innovate. The problem is that as contracts have rolled over and progress has pottered along, the digital world all around us has moved on dramatically. As commissioners it’s now impossible to ignore the shifting sands under our feet. The tech giants are coming.

Take the latest Apple watch, for example, which can send your co-ordinates to the emergency services in the event of a fall. It might be currently targeted at sporty types mountain biking alone in the Pennines but it exploits the same basic accelerometer we’ve been using in fall sensors for years.

As big tech starts to explore this market, consumers like you and I will peg our expectations to their offer. And when we start to develop care needs of our own, we’ll expect the tech and software already integrated into our lives will manage those needs.

Now, currently those of us within local authorities are mostly trying to manage the needs of a cohort that hasn’t been on that journey, so there’s theoretically a gap between what’s possible and what our users’ expectations are.

But here’s the crux; that gap shouldn’t be overestimated by local authorities (myths that older people don’t like tech have been well debunked) and it’s shrinking, and shrinking fast.

As a digital lead, I see what’s happening in the consumer world as absolutely relevant to the challenge of delivering better outcomes for people and managing their increasing expectations. The problem is that a dynamic market doesn’t align with how local authorities tend to work.

In social care in particular there’s very little appetite to spend public money on something that might be perceived as a failure, even if it’d be valuable learning.

However councils that only work within a more traditional model of care technology – often accepting reheated solutions dressed up as innovation – can only evolve their offer so far, and risk getting shut out of broader conversations. In this rapidly-moving space we’re approaching a tipping point. Eventually the user will look at what their local authority can offer and say ‘I don’t want that, I’ve got my Amazon stuff and my smart home, thanks’.

A huge amount of money will have been wasted and everyone in the sector who hasn’t adapted will have to build a new model from scratch.

In Suffolk we’re trying to align with what’s available in the consumer world, and are a fair way down the path to a more ambitious, engaged and agnostic approach with the market. We use the best on the market and develop some of our own solutions. We understand that instead of just switching to a new model we’ll have to be pragmatic and agile enough to evolve our approach continually. It’s certainly not been easy.

Getting true value from investment requires an ecosystemic approach involving care providers, health professionals, academics bodies, and our users themselves.

Research is a fundamental starting point, and I can recommend speaking not just to internal digital or IT functions in your local authority but also innovation campuses, research facilities, and academics. Consult with your healthcare colleagues about their digital ambitions, too.

There’s a risk that if we don’t engage with enough people we’ll make something that works well for the local authority but not the whole system in that area.

 We must also develop an empowered relationship with the market built on curiosity. I’ve spoken to genuinely hundreds of different suppliers, and make time to speak to new people every day.

If I’m not in touch with what’s out there how can I be well enough informed to draft the specification for someone else to deliver? There’s a huge number of paths to investigate and that is intimidating. Sometimes not everything we’ve asked for has been available but it’s right to be ambitious because it means we’re on the right path to build a better model.

I’d argue if you go to the market with your demands and the response is ‘no problem’ that’s probably a sign you’re not being ambitious enough.

Sam Bassett is digital care and innovation lead at Suffolk County Council.

This blog is part one of a two-part series on understanding the opportunities big tech can offer.

Find more big ideas on the digital future of social care here.

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