‘Care tech vendors must really know the customers they are selling to’: Highland Marketing’s interview with Peter Skinner

Peter Skinner

National policy has put social care digital adoption into sharp focus. But what are the big opportunities, and how can technology suppliers get noticed by the right people with so many innovations on offer? NHS England’s programme director for digitising social care, gives his views to Highland Marketing’s Matthew D’Arcy.

‘Don’t let social care get left behind on tech’. This was a key message made by one social care campaigner during the pandemic. And it has been heard and acted on by both policy makers and technology suppliers.

That’s according to Peter Skinner, the programme director for digitising social care within NHS England’s transformation directorate. He points out that the government’s ‘People at the Heart of Care’ white paper has technology “weaved throughout the whole document”. “This has really changed the way people view technology in social care,” he says.

With the word ‘technology’ featuring no fewer than 80 times in the policy document, and phrases including ‘digital’ and ‘innovation’ receiving similarly substantive attention, it is clear that the Department of Health and Social Care sees a key role for tech as an enabler for quality care services that can prevent decline, mitigate demand, and support independent lives.

Many millions of pounds have since been made available for digitising social care – at least £150 million additional funding over three years, was committed in the white paper released at the end of 2021. And since then social care providers, local authorities, and others have been flooded with a plethora of offers from tech vendors.

But what are the key priorities, how can those investing in tech know they are buying the right thing, and how can companies with innovative offers make both commercial traction and a difference?

Building a strong evidence base around innovations

The adoption of digital social care records, or DSCRs, by care providers across England has been one key focus for Peter and his team. “The reason this is such a big priority is it gives us the basic data infrastructure we need,” he explains. DSCRs will standardise and reduce time spent on reporting and data collection, allow social care to link important data with health, as well as informing how to prioritise and shape ways of working in social care, he explains. But DSCRs are by no means the only focus in digitising social care.

Opportunities to embrace technological innovation are being explored in many other areas too, as new evidence is now sought on what works and where. “There are lots of exciting products being put out there,” says Peter. “But we haven’t had a really strong evidence base for what works.  Nothing to help a care provider, an integrated care system, or a local authority know where to target investment.”

That’s why NHS England’s transformation directorate is now building a stronger understanding of the settings technologies work in.

“We often see a big disconnect at the moment between the impact of tech and who we ask to pay for that tech,” says Peter. “Falls prevention technology improves quality of care, but the cost benefit is seen in the NHS where admissions are reduced. Until we know where the benefits flow through and where savings can be made, we don’t know whether it should be a local authority, the NHS or a care provider investing.”

Advice to care tech vendors: understand who you are selling to

Technology suppliers also need to understand where the impact is being felt from their solutions in order to be successful, says Peter. His key advice to care tech vendors: “Understand the sector, who it is you are selling to, and where the benefits are going to lie.” 

“If your product is improving health outcomes, or cutting demand on NHS services you might want to approach integrated care boards or local NHS trusts,” he says. “If it is around improving productivity, or efficiency, or quality of care, it might be the local authority or the care provider you need to approach.”

Care providers can also be motivated to invest in technology that will demonstrate better care, improve CQC ratings, and attract more private fee payers, Peter explains.

Selling tech into social care is also very different than pitching heath tech solutions to the NHS, he adds. “It is a complex market, and people don’t always grasp just how different social care is to the NHS and the number of nuances that exist.”

Marketing care tech to citizens will be key

“And don’t forget you might be looking at an individual: the consumer market as a key customer group,” he emphasises. “In the future I would expect those individuals to start being the drivers of demand.”

There is a prevalence of private fee payers and top-up payers who will expect technology to be used in the provision of care, says Peter. He expects them to drive their care providers to adopt technology, and also to become direct customers, with many likely to purchase care tech solutions for personal wellbeing. This includes “people who are prior to needing social care, starting to use technology to prevent future demand”, he says.

Peter Skinner quote
Peter Skinner quote

AI has a big role, as does existing technology

With artificial intelligence touching almost every aspect of society, social care is no exemption. “AI has a big role to play in social care, but it is about enabling the care, it is not about replacing the critical human element,” says Peter.

He talks about the potential to use AI to recognise problems early, to improve quality and safety, in improving access to services, to help predict disease, or to identify family carers not formally registered, so they can get the support they need, as just a few examples of what could be possible.

Equally exciting is the potential to make use of existing technology in the home, he says. Smart speakers and webcams could help to monitor if medication has been taken correctly, he says. And he gives an example of a company already “using smart electricity meters to detect changes in patterns and behaviours to identify if someone is developing dementia”.

“Existing technology being used for a different purpose, rather than always jumping to a brand-new piece of specialist tech – that is an exciting area for me,” he says.

Unique opportunities

Despite its complexities and challenges, social care is also in a unique position, according to Peter. “It is relatively greenfield. If you compare it to the health service which has lots of legacy architecture, we have huge opportunities to skip a generation of technology and perhaps get ahead of the NHS,” he says.

Opportunities to ensure social care doesn’t get left behind are already being realised, he says: “I do think that message has been heard, there is a lot of investment that has been put in, and there is a lot of positive change in the sector.”

But what impact will be realised from this investment, how much progress will be made, how will new opportunities develop, and how quickly will social care see the benefits from technology adoption? “Talk to my team again in 12 months’ time, and we will be able to show you,” says Peter. Readers: make a note in your calendar.

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