It’s no secret that the UK’s social care sector is in a sorry state. The ageing population means more of us are in need of support than ever. There’s not enough money to fund it. And it’s having a massive knock on effect on the NHS. ‘Bed blocking’ has risen by 40% in the past year as those in need of care have been unable to make way for new patients.
Ben Maruthappu thinks his new company Cera can help change all that. The start-up, which is backed by a whopping £1.3m in seed funding, uses an online platform to connect people with the right carers, keep track of the care they have received and need in the future and keeps family members in the loop.
Formerly a practising doctor, Maruthappu was an adviser to the CEO of NHS England on tech and policy issues. ‘It became increasingly apparent that some of the challenges in social care were having a tremendous impact on the remainder of the system,’ he tells MT. ‘I also had a personal experience where my mother fell, fractured part of her back and required home care. That showed me first hand some of the challenges an individual can experience if they’re trying to organise or care for a loved one themselves.’ So he teamed up with internet entrepreneur Marek Sacha and several others (who declined to be named) to start Cera.
Most home care is funded by local councils, who give those in need an allowance to spend on their choice of private provider. The problem with the market at the moment, says Maruthappu, is that it’s so fragmented. ‘We need to think differently and we need new models for delivering care, because the current system isn’t fulfilling the needs of our country’s population,’ he says. ‘It is a somewhat cottage industry, which in turn entails variations in quality of care, and there is also a real lack of scale.’ As a result there are major inefficiencies and the sector is yet to feel the benefit of technological change.
The idea is that by reaching a greater scale through the use of tech, the company can keep administrative costs low and therefore pay staff more, keeping standards high without making care prohibitively expensive. The company reckons that if it can reach a great size then it could save the taxpayer up to £500m per year. ‘Through technology there is a real opportunity to transform the entire sector in the same way that we’ve seen other sectors be transformed – from takeaways to taxis.’
Those are lofty aims but Cera comes with lofty backing. Its investors include outgoing Just Eat boss David Buttress, McKinsey’s global head of digital Paul Willmott and former Standard Chartered boss Peter Sands, now a board member of the Department of Health and co-chair of the World Economic Forum.
Comparisons with the taxi app Uber are inevitable, but Maruthappu says there are big differences. ‘We are quite a holistic service – we offer everything from end to end and take full responsibility for that. Care is not a commodity – you can’t just think about it on demand and get it delivered to your door. Care is something that’s far more intimate, it’s a lasting relationship and companionship between the carer and the individual receiving care.’
Cera also lacks Uber’s total reliance on self-employed workers – its carers are on a mixture of full-time, zero-hours and freelance contracts. ‘We’re determining at the moment which is the best step forward.’
At the moment Cera is focused on London but the plan is to expand to other cities this year. The company also partners with providers of smart home tech (like video cameras and thermostats) and health devices (internet connected heart monitors and such) as well as other health service providers. The idea being that customers can have all of their health and care needs dealt with by a single app. ‘Our ambition is to really support these older people in being as independent, well and happy in their homes as possible.’
It’s still pretty early days for the start-up, which launched its first pilot in March last year and now has ‘hundreds’ of carers on its books and has delivered 10s of thousands of hours of care. Such youth is a mixed blessing. ‘It’s a strength because we have a blank slate so we can completely redesign care services as we think they should be delivered and use technology in the parts of our service provision we think that it will be most helpful. But at the same time we don’t have a 20 year track record of delivering home care, which people can look at.’
Whether Cera can change care to the extent that Uber has changed taxis and Just Eat takeaways remains to be seen. But what’s clear is that change in one form or another is badly needed, and digital technology could go a long way in that.