The technology of touch: potential and limitation in the digital care age.

I am unashamedly an enthusiast for technology and gadgets. I may not have the latest phone or gizmo, but it is likely if you do I will look on with more than a modicum of jealousy.  As part of this fascination I have always been intrigued about the role of technology and digital in our care and support services.

This interest led me two years ago to write a report exploring the role of human rights in the developing fields of Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things and Big Data. Now before you scroll away, my central premise and interest in doing so was to explore the extent to which we can keep the human and especially rights at the heart of our use of technology in health and social care.

I have had quite a few conversations in the last week around technology, in part because along with colleagues, I am preparing for the Scottish Care Care Tech3 event next Friday. This virtual event will bring together those who have been using technology and digital in the delivery of care services and will include designers and developers as well as frontline staff and users. The equivalent event last year saw the launch of a Human Rights Charter for Technology and Digital and this year my colleague Dr Tara French will be sharing the Scottish Care Tech Vision rooted in the human rights and autonomy of individuals.

For me technology at its best is explicitly an art or a craft (indeed that’s what the word tekne means in its Greek root). Its potential is immense in that it can deepen and enrich human encounter and experience, can foster connection and enhance relationships. However, too often, I feel, we get so caught up in the mechanics and the technicalities of new technology, that we lose sight of the art, the creativity and the humanity. Equally we can get so obsessed with using technology as a cost-saver and as an efficient alternative to the human that we endanger the willingness of citizens to adopt and trust.

The Covid pandemic has seen the most amazing advances in the use of technology not least in the health and care sectors. The pace and speed of intervention and design has been breath-taking. The launch in the last week of an app to help care home providers share critical data and information on a national level has been astonishing, moving as it has from wire-design to delivery within weeks.  We have witnessed a massive increase in the use of video and tele-consultations between GPs and their patients not least through the Near Me technology supported by Scottish Government. Remote diagnostic tools have been developed and many more practical and helpful innovations including the use of virtual reality have enabled technology to come off the paper and change lives, indeed, probably to save lives.

Perhaps most importantly, on a very human level the experience of many of the residents in our care homes has been that through the use of tablets and other video devices they have been able to keep in touch and remain connected with their family members during the forced lockdown when physical contact has not been possible.

But it is as a result of my many conversations with families and residents and those who used health and care services during the pandemic that I feel that my own enthusiasm and evangelism about technology needs to be more balanced.

Now I am not suggesting that we are in danger of some dystopian nightmare where automaton have taken over and that as a result we need to develop a fear of the technological future. Covid19 whilst it has highlighted the real progressive power of tech and digital has also served to underline the critical importance of embedding a human rights and ethical framework in its use in health and social care.

Technology within a care context should primarily be about enabling the betterment of interaction and facilitating the intensity of relationship. It should always be about improving outcomes for the person rather than simply making life easier for the professional. A GP who uses Near Me to consult with someone in a care home is positively providing an immediacy of response and especially during a pandemic reducing the risk of virus transmission. However, few would deny that the subtleties of body language, the dynamic of inter-personal relationship, the signs and signals of encounter can be equally achieved through a virtual encounter compared to a face to face meeting. Video consultations are fundamentally important, but we have to acknowledge their limitations. We have to appreciate that there are those with visual and hearing impairments, those with advanced dementia and other neurological conditions ( i.e. the majority of care home residents) who struggle to engage with such tools and who are dis-empowered by any sole dependency upon them, to say nothing for the effects on their personal privacy and autonomy. We have equally to acknowledge the reality of digital poverty which if not adequately recognised will serve to exacerbate and compound the very real health inequalities which have scarred Scotland.

I know from practice that one of the most important things I learnt was to give space to ‘doorknob’ conversations. These were the conversations which happened as someone got to the door, placed their hand on the handle, and turned around and said to me ”Oh there is something else I meant to say…”  And you just knew that this interaction was the primary reason they had come to see you but just could not get up the courage to talk about face to face.  Not much chance for the occasional, by-the-way alongsideness of such conversations in a video consultation. So too those of us involved in talking to others about hard and emotional subjects recognise that it is not just what someone says that communicates their truth and feelings but also the way they say it, the timbre of their voice and the silence between the sounds of their words.

But there has been one conversation more than any other during the last few months which has helped to balance my digital enthusiasm. It was with the daughter of a care home resident who had provided a tablet for her mum to speak to her and keep in touch. After weeks of growing frustration with both the device and her mother’s inability to comprehend what was happening and to use it –she said to me – “I want to hold her and hug her, I want to touch her not give her a digital kiss.”

As I researched the report I mentioned earlier I spoke to many around the world from California to Tokyo, Edinburgh to Oxford, about what the future of technology and care might look like. At the end of six months of Covid I believe we are closer to that future than we could ever have imagined at the start of the year. But for all the immense progress in the last six months I am left with the conviction that my concerns in that original report over data privacy, citizen disenchantment and the intrinsic value of human presence are now more valid than ever they were before.

We need to work together to create a Digital Plus world where we celebrate and appreciate the contribution of technology and digital to change our lives and improve our health alongside  the critical importance of enhancing human interaction and developing models which are right for the individual rather than appropriate for the system. We need to assure those who are anxious about how their data will be held and accessed and be confident in ethical principles and the human rights of privacy and personal control. We need to address the fear that human touch and contact will be marginalised by electronic encounter and exchange.

In a world of robotics and care bots, in a realm of accelerated data and machine learning, we dare not lose the human at the heart of the machine. Technology can enhance connection but can never replace touch; a machine can foster memory but can never give the feeling of a hug, held close, warm and affirming full of a depth of meaning beyond calculation.

So I will continue to be enthusiastic about the potential of technology but I will balance that with the lessons of Covid which more than anything else have taught me that when it matters most we want to be present, to feel we are heard, to recognise the rhythm of another’s concern, and to be held. If we get the balance right then we will really experience the touch of technology.


Dr Donald Macaskill

Last Updated on 31st August 2020 by Shanice