Tony Lodge Tony Lodge is a Council Member of the Bow Group, which is today publishing Telecare – A Crucial Opportunity to help save our health and social care system, an independent analysis written by Professor Sue Yeandle of the University of Leeds. Here he summarises the pamphlet's findings.

It is time to face some urgent truths on the NHS and the way we fund and care for our expanding elderly population. There is a growing cross-party consensus that spending on the NHS and social care, which has more than doubled in the past thirteen years, must become better focused and more controlled as we face a growing older population.

By 2025 the number of people aged 85 or older in England is set to increase by 70%, to nearly two million. By 2020 there will be 50% more people over 65 and 54% more people with dementia than there are now.  Already in the 85+ group, more than a third of men and more than half of women live alone – and most have a limiting long-term illness. 

On 14 July 2009, the Government went some way to acknowledging the force of these demographic pressures, with the publication of its long-delayed social care Green Paper – but many argue the Government still refrains from taking a clear policy lead.

New independent analysis by the University of Leeds, published by the Bow Group, shows that without urgent action to harness the potential of technology, Britain’s ageing population will place huge, increasing – but in many cases unnecessary – demands on our health and social care system, at the same time as the relative size of the working age population is shrinking. 

The detailed research, Telecare – A Crucial Opportunity to help save our health and social care system, by  Professor Sue Yeandle, emphasises that most of the care and support needed by older, sick and disabled people living at home is supplied by two specific groups of people: unpaid carers – by far the largest group – many struggling to combine paid work and unpaid care, and some having to give up their paid jobs in order to care; and workers in health and social care occupations, such as care assistants and workers in nursing and residential homes.

With many people living longer and with illness or disability, the future scenario for care at home, which is where most people prefer to be supported during periods of illness or disability, threatens to be increasingly costly.  Its costs fall three ways: on individuals and families (mainly through foregone earnings and pensions), on employers (who may lose their employees who need to care for elderly relatives), and on the increasingly hard-pressed public purse. The latter point is crucial; it includes spending on personal social services and carers’ benefits/income replacement as well as lost tax revenue from those having to abandon full-time employment.

The solution to many of these pressures is a policy which supports the large-scale rolling out of what has come to be known as telecare. Telecare offers a ‘win-win’ for the health and social care system because it can help sick, disabled and older people to remain at home for longer by supporting them 24/7 with electronic alarms, alerts, health monitoring and communication – linked up to response centres where immediate help can be summoned when needed. 

A basic telecare package is remarkably simple – a base unit and wireless sensors that link to a 24 hour response centre where risks such as those associated with falls, fire, dementia, poor health, gas escapes and security issues – to name only some – can be carefully monitored.

Britain is leading in this health and social care revolution: it is home to many leaders in the telecare field.  This technology has been embraced by many local authorities with impressive and dramatic results in almost every case, including in North Yorkshire, Cornwall and also in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Back in 2005, the County Council in North Yorkshire recognised the potential of telecare and trialled it in two areas. From 42 individual test cases it found the cost of a care package including telecare, compared with a traditional care package produced a gross saving of £6,800 per person.  Twenty one people (50%) could be diverted from premature admission to residential care and were enabled to go on living independently in their own homes. These trials, in urban Harrogate and in rural Selby showed that telecare could work in demographically different localities, but be equally successful in each.

It is now widely accepted by experts that telecare technology has many undisputed positives.  It can be installed in virtually all homes; it is comparatively cheap; monitoring centres can operate with high efficiency; and perhaps most important of all, users and their carers can have immediate reassurance. In short, telecare is enabling independent living while saving the state and families considerable sums of money which would traditionally have been spent placing relatives in expensive residential homes or even taking up valuable hospital beds – when what almost all would prefer would be to stay at home.

Just as industry has had to adopt new procedures and technologies to achieve efficiency savings, so the health and social care sector needs to follow – and quickly. Telecare offers a pain-free way to save money, maintain and improve care and quality of life, support independent living, and prevent unnecessary dependence for as long as possible.  Adopting telecare as a key part of our national health and social care policy can help save these crucial systems from being overwhelmed, and signal our commitment as a nation to offer better care, at home where they want it, for our growing elderly population.