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.
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.
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.