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Harnessing the power of the disruptors

By Steve Carefull

20 November 2017 

A pilot service using Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant to support people with social care needs is underway in Hampshire County Council.

PA Consulting Group, which leads the Argenti Telehealthcare Partnership that runs the Council’s care technology service, has been thinking about ‘where next’ for care technology and observing the growth in consumer digital connected devices. This led to conversations between PA and Amazon about whether new social care “skills” could be developed to work through Amazon’s Echo.

The resultant pilot, which is being funded by the Local Government Association, is trialling a skill that PA already had in development. It enables Alexa to get the attention of the user via a prompt sent to another digital device, such as an electronic picture frame. When the user asks the Echo for their messages, Alexa will speak a reminder to take medication on time.

A second skill is being designed to support the attendance of a paid care worker at an individual’s home. The team running the pilot is testing the feasibility of integrating this application with a domiciliary care time recording system.  If successful, this skill will include the facility to ask Alexa ‘Where’s my carer?’ and receive an oral estimate of their arrival time.

Amazon devices have already begun to be installed in the homes of 50 frail older people and those with learning disabilities, with evaluation taking place in spring 2018. The longer-term objective is to develop skills that can support a range of services for councils, extending beyond social care.

Alexa listens to questions from the participants and speaks the answers. Speech is human beings’ preferred method of communication, so the hope is that this interaction will feel natural and warm.  Alexa is not a person though, and it cannot replace human to human interaction; that is not the aim. 

There are some significant potential benefits to be gained from using Alexa. For instance it provides a route for delivering support in a way that can be seamlessly integrated in people’s lives. The fact that Alexa does so many other things: provides the news and weather, plays music, tells jokes, reads stories and so on, makes it desirable and useful in a range of ways. It raises questions for a care technology sector that has historically provided proprietary, single-function devices that users often find undesirable and even stigmatising.

Whilst the new technology is exciting, it is only the ‘how’; the important thing is the ‘why’. The focus will be firmly on the risk the pilot participants are exposed to and the outcomes they seek. Robust evidence that Alexa works in the desired way will be essential if provision is to be expanded. Benefits are being measured in qualitative terms (eg user satisfaction and outcomes) and quantitative terms (eg tracking actual usage and evaluating where other costs of care have been reduced).

This is the start of a revolution in care technology that will see disruptors like Google, Apple, Amazon and others delivering ‘anytime and anywhere’ solutions to suit the customer. It must be a good thing if people buy a device or an app that helps them to live safely for longer in their own home, or that can alert a carer in an emergency. The technology will also help public services, which are struggling with the double-whammy of demographic growth and budget cuts, if people who might previously have relied on funded provision for help can help themselves instead.

More information can be found here.

Steve Carefull is a social care expert at PA Consulting Group, and programme director at Argenti Telehealthcare Partnership.

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