Study examines impact of using digital technologies.

SW – 05/2020

The use of robots, telepresence and wearable devices can help ensure that care can continue in times of confinement, home quarantine and social distancing. This is one of the findings from the report ‘Impact of digitalisation on social services’ published by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound). The report looks at the use of digital technologies in social services as well as policy initiatives to promote digitalisation.

The use of digital technologies in social services in Europe has not been studied to the same extent as their use in healthcare. The digitalisation of social services is often done in conjunction with healthcare (for example, creating databases to share health and social records) or as part of broader public sector reforms. The aim of digitalising social services is often to achieve cost-efficiency and enable older people to live independently for as long as possible.

Report conclusions

One of the report’s key findings is that the fragmentation of social service providers and the information and technologies they use (that is, their lack of interoperability) has a negative impact on the uptake of digital technologies. Lack of skills and training for staff is also a barrier to the uptake of digital technologies.

Due to high costs, safety concerns and resistance from carers and the public, the use of robots in social care has been limited. Artificial intelligence (AI) is used to plan resource allocation and to process applications for cash benefits or benefits in kind. AI can also predict the individual needs of service users. Platforms are used to put providers and users of home care and childcare facilities in contact with each other. In the future, this technology might be increasingly used in social services where public provision declines.

However, the use of digital technologies in social services could bring benefits. For example, digital technologies could help to reduce costs by preventing the need for more costly and intensive care and medical treatment, by helping to detect fraud more effectively, or by making more efficient use of scarce resources. For example, the automation or reduction of administrative processes could increase productivity and allow carers to spend more time on other tasks.

However, there are also cases where digitalisation results in a higher workload, for example when staff involved in the digitalisation of services need to spend more time reporting, monitoring or supporting those using the services.

Policy recommendations

One of the key policy recommendations is to strengthen digital skills and digital literacy, which should help to overcome resistance and build users’ confidence in digital technologies.

Bridging the digital divide and investing in digital infrastructure and skills are both crucial. This is all the more important given the COVID-19 pandemic, as these technologies are important tools for preventing infection. Examples include robots that test for symptoms or perform cleaning tasks, tracking apps used to monitor the risk of infection, and telemedicine used to diagnose people experiencing symptoms.

The Digital Education Action Plan announced by the Commission provides an opportunity to improve these skills. In addition, the InvestEU Fund will be used to mobilise public and private investment.