The trouble with long deadlines is they lure you into a false sense of security. When BT first announced in 2015 that analogue telephony would be phased out from 2020 and switched off completely by 2025, it probably seemed like an age away.
Almost five years on, how prepared are we for what will be a fundamental technological shift and one that will affect the 1.7 million vulnerable people who rely on telecare in the UK? In particular, are we building and adapting social housing in a way that will fully utilise digital technology-enabled care (TEC)?
For many people, telecare is accessed via pendant alarms connected by traditional phone lines to a monitoring centre. Over the next five years, some of these alarms will stop working or be less resilient to power and network failures. It’s vital that before this happens, alarms are tested and any systems that aren’t compatible with digital connectivity are replaced.
There is no scope for delay or disruption when people’s lives are at stake. Paul Burstow, president of TSA (the national body for TEC services), wrote in a report setting out a roadmap to a digital future for TEC that, “This report is not about a ‘nice to have’, it is about a ‘must do’.”
However, while it’s important to stress the urgency of the situation and the dangers of inaction, it’s equally crucial to spell out the huge opportunities presented by the switchover. For social landlords and other providers, it shouldn’t be about merely swapping one system for another but realising the full benefits of digital technology by using it as the basis for service transformation.
We’re already seeing the myriad ways in which TEC can enable housing providers to provide proactive rather than reactive services. Digitally connected homes allow people to use everything from everyday apps to tailored software to support long-term conditions and maintain independence. In turn, this creates a rich vein of data that housing providers can analyse to improve the way they support their tenants and reduce their costs.
Building for the future
One of our biggest concerns is that despite greater awareness of the benefits of digital TEC, when it comes to building new social housing, such technology is either overlooked or ends up being an expensive afterthought. It puts both the wellbeing of tenants and the future sustainability of social housing stock at risk.
The crux of the problem often comes down to an organisation’s approach to TEC more generally and the degree to which digital technology is integral to their future plans. Housing providers must insist on TEC being part of the specification for new developments from the outset so that it’s ingrained into the brief for all parties involved, from the architects to the engineers and the building contractors. That means stipulating that new properties must be ‘digital ready’ and designed to incorporate the latest digital technology.
There are a few trailblazers in the sector who are reaping the benefits of such an approach. One example is Herefordshire Housing which made TEC a key part of the build specification for a new development of apartments and a reablement unit in Hereford city centre. Care and support are tailored to each individual in a way that makes the most of digital technology and is less intrusive.
As a result of making TEC part of the specification, the development has an advanced communications system embedded in it that provides real-time information, bespoke management reporting and a flexible platform to offer needs-based telecare solutions for residents, all of which can be accessed via a tablet.
Another example is Community Housing which plans to make all of its properties and residents digitally connected over the next three years. This includes creating a digital portal within each tenant’s home so they can view and pay rent online, access services and interact with their landlord in a more effective way. It also means installing a range of technologies, such as boiler sensors, in every new and existing home to help with the proactive maintenance and management of the properties.
Community Housing’s own TEC service, Amica24 (formerly Worcestershire Telecare) will lead this transformation work, applying its experience to the dozens of other social landlords, healthcare providers and local authorities that it also supports.
What these and other housing providers are demonstrating is the way in which TEC can be a powerful tool to integrate housing, health and social care and contribute to the national movement towards early intervention and prevention.
Gearing up for the switch
In some areas, the digital switchover could happen as early as 2023 and so organisations that have yet to take action must begin preparing for the change as a matter of urgency. That could start with an assessment of where you currently stand; for example, if analogue services ended tomorrow, which aspects of your telecare would still work in a digital environment?
Think about the implications for procuring and operating technology in this new world in terms of developing procurement specifications that include reliability, availability, performance and interoperability. How will your suppliers be expected to demonstrate their compliance with this new set of standards?
It’s important to remember that the success of traditional analogue telecare over the course of many years has been built on the fact that it is trusted and reliable. Its processes and structures are governed by established industry standards and service expectations.
The digital shift brings with it greater opportunities and complexity. Digital technology is constantly evolving and regulations and standards need to be reframed to focus on what service capabilities they should enable rather than how systems should be constructed. But digital TEC’s success will ultimately be built on the same foundations as analogue telecare – trust and reliability. So just as organisations providing care must demonstrate quality in line with Care Quality Commission requirements, it is crucial that landlords engage with TEC services and solutions that can equally demonstrate quality and safety.
One way that can be achieved is through audited compliance to the Quality Standards Framework, which is independently delivered by TEC Quality.
Those who prepare for and embrace the digital agenda will not only be safeguarding the health and wellbeing of their customers but also opening the door to a world of technological possibilities that can transform lives.
Alyson Scurfield is the chief executive of TSA, the national body for technology enabled care (TEC) services.