Local government needs a stronger voice and more investment to enable a successful digital integration of health and social care, a national spokesperson has said.
Hannah Gill, senior adviser at the Local Government Association (LGA), raised the point in a presentation to yesterday’s session of the UKAuthority Integrating Digital Health and Care conference.
She said that failing to provide adequate funding will create a significant risk to the ongoing effort to bring the sectors closer together, and repeated a recurring complaint that NHS organisations have a lot more influence over the approach towards integration.
Local authorities should be given more influence not just because they have a stronger understanding of social care, but as they are directly elected representatives of local communities.
“Something that is often forgotten or glazed over is that local government is already a place leader in the very way it is set up,” Gill said. “We’re set up around communities and wards, and really importantly, it has local democracy at its heart.
“Local government is run by directly elected members who are accountable to their local communities. If that doesn’t make us key leaders I don’t know what does.
“That’s really important because none of the health partners are directly elected. So local government has to be seen as a key partner in integration.”
She acknowledge structural changes – notably the creation of integrated care systems – but warned the under-investment creates a major risk.
“Structures alone do not create change,” she said. “We need huge investment. It’s important to stress that the adult social care sector has gone through a pandemic while being underfunded for a decade, and asking for the sector to invest significantly now is a real risk.
“A huge amount of change will be required over the next few years and it’s great to see digital within policy, but the risk is that there is a huge amount of top down change coming that councils will have to adapt to quickly, such as changes to charging reform and digital switchover.”
This echoes a recent statement by the LGA that welcome the Government’s proposals for using digital in social care but emphasised the need for more money to be made available.
Gill also identified major risks in treating digital as a factor that can just be added to the integration without account of the necessary cultural and systemic changes, and in the need to expand workforce capacity in social care.
She also, however, acknowledged positive developments in the increasing emphasis on digital change in policy, with initiatives such as the development of shared care records and NHS Digital’s Digital Social Care programme. There is also a major opportunity to bring together partners from both care sectors.
There have recently been signs that the risks identified by Gill are taken seriously beyond local government. Most notably, Simon Bolton, interim chief executive of NHS Digital, said there is a need to pay more attention to the needs of social care in furthering its digital integration with healthcare in England.