The need for change in the care system is urgent – design thinking can get to the heart of the problem quickly and suggest radical, innovative solutions. 

There were 29 million Google searches for 'How do I pay for my care fees?' over 12 months in 2013. This is astonishing. Yet it's entirely understandable. At a time of public austerity, many people fear they may have to sell their homes to pay for care, when they can no longer care for themselves. Many children fear they cannot meet the cost of caring for frail, elderly parents. But public anxiety is not only about the cost of care. It’s also about the quality of care, about who provides it and where. 

Why the system needs to change

The system is frankly bewildering. The need for change is urgent. Where does ‘healthcare’ end and ‘care’ begin? Why are there two systems? Don’t they overlap in practice? The first, (healthcare), is provided by the NHS and the second (care or ‘social care’), is provided by local authorities. The money comes from different pots and councils make their own local decisions. Consequently, there are wide variations in different parts of the country. 

When it comes to caring for the most frail and vulnerable persons in our society, the phrase ‘postcode lottery’ rings true

The numbers are growing. ONS [Office of National Statistics] data shows that 13,780 centenarians were alive in 2013, compared with 3,040 in 1983. That too is astonishing – and welcome. It testifies to the outstanding success of public health in the UK since the foundation of the NHS in 1947.

But increased longevity has other, less welcome, consequences. They include multiple, co-existent medical conditions, frailty and dementia. We have been less good at anticipating these; we have hoped for the best. But as the number of people requiring care or caring for themselves rockets, we surely need to work together to design something better.

What is Design for Care?

Design for Care is a programme of investigation, conceptualization and acceleration of new services, products and processes in health, social care and well-being.  But to be successful, it has to be more than this. It’s an inclusive way of thinking about the needs of others – and, in due course, about ourselves.  It’s a long-term process or movement. It begins, as with all good design, in a spirit of improvement. It recognises that some things are poorly designed in the first place. It acknowledges that better design can make things more intelligible and more meaningful. Whether it is physical design, in the home and in spaces and places for care, or the presentation of ‘choice-making’, or the connectivity of systems and the pleasures of well-being – all of these are all bound up in better human-centred design. 

Design for Care is an inclusive way of thinking about the needs of others – and, in due course, about ourselves.

The Care Act 2014 says that the ‘well-being’ of those who receive care (or who care for themselves) is more vital than ticking boxes for separate ‘tasks’ of care. The new measure of ‘well-being’, which is supported by all UK political parties, encompasses health and care. But more importantly it marks a noble attempt to see the person beyond the passive ‘patient’ and to consider all their faculties, talents and capacities in the round. 

Design thinking can get to the heart of the problem

Design and designers are well-placed to help realise this ambition. Sometimes imaginative, lateral-thinking habits trump writing policy or publishing plans, essential though these undoubtedly are. Independent ‘design thinking’ can often get to the heart of a problem quickly and suggest radical, innovative solutions in ways that policy-makers may find inhibiting. 

But the two – design and policy – can and should work together. That is why the support and encouragement of the Department of Health for Design for Care is welcome. And it is why the collaboration of industry is equally vital for its long-term success.

Design for Care means taking care by design, because well-being is about more than merely being well. This should not be left to chance.

Find out more about Design for Care.

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