Responding to the residential care sector – how tech can make a difference

Technology can help care home residents lead more independent lives – but the market is still under-developed, providing plenty of opportunities for businesses prepared to focus on what users want

20th December 2021 about a 6 minute read
“The challenge is for the tech companies to...empathise more with people who work in care homes, so that they don’t try and design for a population they don’t understand.” Lee Omar, founder of Safe Steps

A report by Future Care Capital (FCC) into technology for the residential care sector found that, despite the large size of the sector, there were relatively few companies making products aimed at the market.

At an online event on residential care sector technology, our panel discussed the types of technology currently being used in the sector and the opportunities for future development. The panellists were:

Dr Peter Bloomfield, head of policy and research, FCC

Cristina Ruiz, senior consultant, Newmarket Strategy

Nuno Almeida, founder and CEO, Nourish Care

Lee Omar, founder, Safe Steps

Cristina said FCC’s report had aimed to do four things:

  • Provide a snapshot of the technologies in development
  • Understand trends in residential care technology pre- and post-Covid
  • Describe the opportunities for technology in the sector
  • Make recommendations on how to stimulate the market growth to policy makers.

The research had identified 58 companies in the sector, making 82 technologies in total. Of these, 37 were platforms, 29 were apps and 16 were Internet of Things (IoT) based technologies.

Compared with the three other social care sectors that FCC reports had looked at, which were dominated by apps, this represented a fairly even spread. “An overwhelming number of technologies were used for productivity reasons, such as better management of care in residential settings,” Cristina said.

Segmenting the technologies by function, the researchers had identified four main groups:

  • Remote monitoring. This includes technologies that can help monitor individuals in residential care settings, for example such as alarms to prevent falls, or monitoring of vital signs.
  • Care management. This was the biggest group, and involves helping carers do their job faster and more easily, including planning and recording all elements of care.
  • Workforce mobility. These technologies are about allowing carers to move rapidly between care settings and facilitating recruitment.
  • Assistive technology. This includes any technology that allows residents to live more independently and to have more agency in their day-to-day lives. This was the only group “uniquely focused on residents,” said Cristina.

Technology, she said, had the ability to improve the quality of life of care home residents and support them to lead “more independent, connected lives,” as well as to provide care workers with the tools to deliver high-quality, personalised care. But, she added, for research and development to be better aligned to the needs of the sector, better demand-signalling processes were needed. Implementation of digital technology relies on the users, usually carers, who will use it on a daily basis. “Access to a widespread digital upskilling programme would provide the technical capabilities needed,” she said.

Lee Omar and Nuno Almeida shared their experiences of setting up businesses to provide tech for the residential care sector. Both started from a point of wanting to meet specific needs. Lee founded Safe Steps, which markets an app to prevent falls in care homes, after his grandfather experienced a fall that led to his health deteriorating.  He co-designed the app with carers, commissioners and GPs, which gave him “a good understanding of how care homes work.” A lot of the technology aimed at the sector, he said, was of poor quality: “The challenge is for the tech companies to be better at designing and to empathise more with people who work in care homes, so that they don’t try and design for a population they don’t understand.”

A market of massive opportunity

Nuno similarly started by trying to understand the user viewpoint.  Having made some money by selling his stake in a business designing aerospace solutions, he spent two years volunteering in care homes. He sees the residential care sector as “a market where the most disruptive technologies are yet to happen.”

His product, Nourish, enables carers to record notes at the point of care, using speech-to-text software, rather than writing notes that need to be re-typed later. Managers have access to live information, enabling them to respond quickly and make better-informed decisions. Handovers are also speedier and more accurate.

Safe Steps grew very quickly and organically. It was initially adopted in one care home, where it prevented falls by 28-30% in the first year, and was then taken on by other care homes in the same borough. It grew quickly from there. Lee said that the company didn’t have a business plan, but that it had “been prepared to move fast and try new things.” An attempt to pitch NHS England to get into several hundred care homes had tied the company up in bureaucracy, Lee said, but success had come from “a lot of social capital, a lot of networking, a lot of people advocating for you.”

Nourish is now used by 15% of care market providers, said Nuno, and there are 2000 care teams using the product “day in and day out.” They had designed the product, and the services around the product, in a way “where we are always focusing on the person at the end of the chain receiving care,” he said. Care providers were able to configure Nourish to the needs of individual users, and the users themselves could use the app to manage their care (for example, choosing their food, or which activity they wanted to do in the afternoon). The platform was “so adaptable and so interoperable,” said Nuno, “that if that person moves to a different care site, their information flows with them.”

The sector was very diverse, Nuno added, and technology solutions had to be adaptable. Information also needed to be shareable between different institutions so that care managers didn’t spend time replicating information recorded elsewhere.

Nuggets of insight

Lee thought that the demand signalling process could be improved by taking user needs as a starting point. Once you start having design sessions with users, he said, “then you’ll get the nuggets of insights and build a feature or product around it. It starts with trust and having a good relationship with the person you’re co designing with.”

Nuno agreed, pointing out that the care market had changed significantly in recent years. Twenty years ago, technology aimed at the market had been “completely shaped by who pays,” which at the time as mostly commissioners, who purchased on price. Now the market was being shaped by residents purchasing care for themselves – baby boomers who wanted to have a say in the product.  A survey of care home providers carried out by Nourish found that one of the most common questions asked by residents entering a care home was: “What’s the wifi username and password?”

There were therefore plenty of opportunities for providers to enter the market if they took a user-centred approach, added Nuno: “It’s ripe for disruption if you think: ‘How can I respond to this need?’”