Taking the strain with cobots in care

Funding was provided for a series of engagement events to raise awareness of cobot (collaborative robot) technology and the potential benefits it can offer the UK care sector.


Cobots are computer-controlled robotic devices worn around the waist and lower back, which support carers in lifting, holding, and moving people without assistance and with less risk of injury. In 2018, SCDIP funding was granted to the Isle of Wight to explore how carers could be better supported with the physical aspects of caring (in conjunction with Hampshire). This initial engagement reflected that carers are struggling with the physical demands of caring, are eager for new solutions, and are open to the idea of utilising robotics in care settings. Following this initial research, Hampshire developed a business case for a cobot pathfinder programme and leased six cobots, deploying them in residential and then domiciliary care settings.

The challenge

Hampshire is facing a growing volume and complexity of demand within adult social care. A deficit of 6,000 care workers is expected by 2025, and one in three packages of care are now ‘double-ups’ (where more than one carer is provided for a visit). Research has suggested that cobots can be used to support carers to deliver care more efficiently and reduce the need for double-up packages of care. However, Hampshire recognised the need to increase awareness and enthusiasm among social care authorities for the potential role of cobots in care, and the impacts they could have on the care workforce and budgetary challenges the sector is facing.

Key aims and achievements

  • Cobots ensure that carers maintain the correct posture for physical tasks.
  • Carers were less fatigued and felt less strained completing their care duties.
  • Positive feedback from carers.
  • Reduce the need for double-up care packages, and meet increasing demand.

Follow-on funding

Funding was provided for Hampshire to conduct a series of activities to engage with regulators, carers groups, voluntary sector organisations, and other local authorities to raise awareness of the potential role of cobots in care and share insights from their programme. This work was also designed to provide insight into the way informal carers and support organisations could access the technology, as well as encourage consideration of how cobots can be mainstreamed within the relevant UK regulatory and professional policy framework.

Activities

In its trailblazing programme, Hampshire funded the deployment of six leased cobots in residential care settings. At the onset of the pandemic, these were then redeployed into community and domiciliary care settings, allowing investigation into how cobots could be used to help manage the challenges faced by care workers and informal carers supporting vulnerable people at the time. Hampshire received positive feedback from those testing the technology and gathered evidence that the cobots physically aided carers in their role.

The SCDIP follow-on funding was then used to support engagement events and tools to disseminate the findings of this user research. This involved some work on a one-to-one basis, where the project team spent time discussing the technology and its benefits with interested parties and individuals, such as other local authorities interested in the possibility of implementing cobots. Other engagement activities included:

  • development of a video demonstrating how cobots can be used in care
  • inviting NHSX, Innovate UK, and BIS to watch the cobots in use
  • targeted webinars with Carers UK, ADASS, TSA
  • open sessions in Hampshire County Council TEC week
  • ongoing promotion and debate through articles for relevant publications (such as HomeCare Insight)

The project team also took this time to begin considering Hampshire’s potential role in helping other local authorities to access this new technology, as there were concerns that the expense of the cobots may limit their wider accessibility.

Benefits

Hampshire’s deployment of cobots in residential and domiciliary care settings allowed for testing and understanding the practicalities of using these devices, and evaluation of their effectiveness. This research found that carers were less fatigued and felt less strained completing their care duties when utilising the cobots. The cobots ensure that carers maintain the correct posture for physical tasks, something that is covered in training, but which is often difficult to maintain in practical situations. The physical benefit to carers means cobots reduce the risk of injuries and help deliver care in a more efficient way.

I felt supported, it made me use my legs not my back and shoulders... I didn’t think of it as strenuous anymore.

Feedback from a reablement care worker

The research also suggested that the physical benefits of cobots could reduce the need for double-up packages of care, thereby addressing issues of growing demand for care and limited numbers of carers. The requirement for one carer rather than two may make rostering easier and allow for more regularity in the carers that patients are seeing, increasing the continuity of care.

Moreover, this reduction in the need for double-up care was beneficial in the short term by reducing the numbers of different carers required to be in physical contact with their patients, an advantage during the lockdowns and social distancing requirements throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

Measuring success

The focus of the follow-on funding for this project was on the dissemination of the ideas and information gathered in earlier stages of funding. It is therefore difficult to measure the level of success and impact of these engagement events and tools, as the key aim has been to share findings and learnings as widely and effectively as possible. The team were, however, pleased with the numbers of stakeholders reached through the presentations, workshops, and individual conversations conducted because of the follow-on funding. The receipt of messages from other local authorities asking for more details relating to the practicalities of implementing cobots in care reflects that there has been success in encouraging interest and enthusiasm.

Going forward, the wider uptake of cobots in other councils would reflect the success of this project in sharing and convincing others of the benefits and value added of having cobots within social care.

Project benefits

  • Adaptability: the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic meant that the methods of engagement planned for this project had to be adjusted to allow for lockdowns and social distancing requirements. The team effectively adapted the engagement activities to be delivered virtually and invested more time in their explanations of the technology, sometimes in one-on-one settings, to ensure individual understanding of the potential benefits of cobots.
  • Wide engagement: the follow-on funding has allowed for engagement with a wide range of different stakeholder groups, including regulators, carers groups, voluntary sector organisations, and other local authorities. This has given the team a broad scope to encourage understanding and enthusiasm.
  • Shared learning: the sharing of learning is fundamental in encouraging wider adoption of new technology, and the engagement events are useful for other councils wanting to replicate the use of cobots elsewhere. The team felt that they had disseminated a lot of information through their engagement events. They suggested that without the follow-on funding, this learning would not have been shared as extensively and the project would have been more insular.

Challenges and lessons learned

  • Impact of Covid-19 on engagement events: Virtual delivery was a particular challenge for this project as the physical testing of cobot devices is often the easiest way to explain their use and ensure understanding from stakeholders. Engagement events were adapted into virtual seminars and workshops, which are not as immediately effective in simply displaying the operation and benefits of cobots.
  • Extra time with stakeholders: The team noted that some of the engagement was with interested parties who had very little understanding about the technology. This meant that they had to spend time, sometimes in one-to-one settings, going into detail about the cobot technology. While this was often time consuming, the team were happy to conduct this extra engagement where required.

Future potential

Following the previous stages of funding and research, Hampshire County Council decided to invest in six cobots and planned to integrate these into their wider programme of care. At the time of writing, the team are tendering to source a significantly greater number of cobots, with a view to mainstreaming the deployment over the next few years. It was acknowledged that there may be a challenge in encouraging this new technology to become a normalised part of social care practice, but the team believed that the evidenced benefits of using cobots and the presence of forward-thinking care providers in their area would encourage the acceptance of their use.
 
In terms of wider scalability, the team noted the importance of having a dialogue between councils to share learning and ensuring a clear understanding of what needs to be implemented for the benefits of the technology to be realised. This sharing of good practice will be key in allowing scale-up to other areas.
 
Hampshire noted their advantage as a larger council in being able to research and implement a large-scale and costly project such as this. The cobot technology would be more difficult to scale-up to smaller councils with lower adult services budgets. Collaboration between larger and smaller councils may be useful in allowing wider adoption of similar new technology. The team also noted that more central government funding would be needed to help and encourage these smaller local authorities embark on programmes like this.
 

Find out more

Mark Allen: mark.allen@hants.gov.uk

Lesley Grant: lesley.grant@paconsulting.com

Related links

Link to relevant documents:

Isle of Wight discovery phase report (PDF)

Hampshire cobots in care presentation (PDF)