17 October, 2022

Digital health in housing

HACT Digital Lead, Michael McLaughlin and Health & Research Lead, Sarah Parsons discuss the opportunities to use digital technology to improve the health and wellbeing of social housing tenants, particularly in partnership with the health sector.

As social housing requires more and more information to manage properties better, provide improved services for tenants, and meet regulatory requirements, there is an increasing focus on digital being an enabler to do this.

The benefits of digital to organisations through improving cost, time, and management efficiencies from things like IoT and to tenants by being connected to services and increased communication channels are developing all the time.  Through our work with social housing organisations to help their use of data and digital solutions and also with tech providers on our HACT Launch pad, we continue to explore further ways these can operate to improve service delivery and, ultimately, tenant outcomes.

As part of HACT’s social impact approach, our understanding of measuring success within a social housing environment focuses on the effect that any intervention has on the well-being of tenants.  This has been developed over the past ten years culminating in recent work on the social value roadmap to create tools and skills to do this most effectively, and the past couple of years have illustrated the benefits of measuring success on more than purely financial outcomes.

A post-pandemic world

The covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown provided a major challenge for our sector, with a hyper place base approach required to engage with tenants, understanding and providing the support needed in communities, streets, and houses.  Clearly, there are links between better engagement and happier tenants and reduced rent arrears and anti-social behaviour, and associated costs – however, given the drivers for the support for better well-being of tenants were the increased social, economic, environmental, and physical and mental health outcomes that social housing provides – these centre around the sectors social purpose.

Digital transformation in the sector sped up significantly as a mechanism of this support and by providing digital access and increasing the ability to be included in society – in terms of accessing food, medical services, and communication – online – where they couldn’t do so – there was direct support to health and wellbeing indicators at the time.

Can technology help provide a healthier environment?

Moving from one social crisis to another and as fuel poverty escalates amidst the need to retrofit more energy-efficient properties, and the spiralling cost of living crisis, there are again acute challenges to the health and wellbeing of social housing tenants.

Improperly heated homes create the ideal environment for damp and mould growth, and with a predicted rise in even fewer tenants being able to afford heating costs, this could be a real unwanted consequence. Disproportionately affecting older tenants or young children, damp and mould cause respiratory infections, allergies, and asthma and are also known to affect the immune system.

Not only can digital support as a means for social housing organisations to measure energy efficiency and performance of properties through using Internet of things (IoT) connected technologies in their homes, there are examples of technology that now use the data collected to adjust boiler temperature, water levels, ventilation and to provide a healthier environment for the tenant.

Where connected technology allows the tenants to operate ‘smart’ devices, they can allow tenants to feel in more control over their home lives, and by better managing lights, heating, and power usage can provide much needed financial savings, all having positive impacts on the tenant’s health and wellbeing indicators.

IoT has matured as a preventative maintenance technology in social housing but it’s also now emerging as an important tool in keeping residents safe and healthy.

An opportunity for health and housing sectors to improve health and well-being through tech

Some public health teams have identified an opportunity to gain access to target communities not currently engaging freely with health services. Through working more closely with place-based housing associations, public health is able to benefit from the frequent contact and good relationships that residents generally have with their social landlords, creating touchpoints with patients that would not normally be open to them.

An example of this can be found in ‘Do the smart thing: The future of the social smart home’ (May 2020). This is a White Paper produced by HACT which examines some of the pilots in the area of IoT, looking at levels of engagement, barriers to implementation and potential benefits for residents and communities, including those related to health. Commissioners noted the value of using technology to measure such things as temperature, humidity and CO2 levels, in improving the health and wellbeing of its residents. At a time when the NHS is under intense pressure due to clinician shortages, bed capacity issues and ever-growing waiting lists, interventions that help to keep people safe and well in their own homes have an important role to play.

Most recently of course, we have lived through 2 years of a global pandemic. The indirect impact of the pandemic on people’s health and wellbeing cannot be overstated. Research by the UK Academy of Medical Sciences and research charity MQ: ‘Transforming Mental Health’[1] has highlighted concerns over the effect on mental health. Life during lockdown, with many feeling helpless and not in control of their lives, led to a rise in levels of anxiety as well as isolation and loneliness. HACT has been working with social housing providers to look at how services and residents were impacted at this time, and how to apply the learnings in a way that will minimise this impact moving forward. One of the most notable elements that had to be addressed was that of connectivity. With the need not only for children and young people to continue with home-education, but also to allow all residents to access vital health and other services that had moved online, many housing associations needed to introduce or improve their digital offering to residents. At a time when loneliness and isolation was impacting massively on the mental health and wellbeing of its communities, social housing providers soon began to see the positive impact that providing this vital link to the outside world was having on those most vulnerable individuals. With mental health services under immense pressure, evaluations carried out at HACT have shown that during this time, residents were able to stay connected to family and friends whilst also receiving remote support from social prescribing teams, which demonstrated positive changes in both their mental and physical wellbeing.

IoT undoubtedly has an important role to play in securing health and wellbeing in social housing by delivering better public services such as free Wi-Fi and NHS care to people in their homes and improving their health and safety, without invading privacy.

Integrated approaches using digital solutions as a mechanism to improve all areas of housing; from tenancy sustainment, organisational efficiencies right through to tenant health and wellbeing – now have a clear role to play for our sector.

If you would like to further explore ways in which you can start to integrate both digital and health approaches across your social housing organisation, we would love to discuss this in more detail. You can contact:

[1] https://acmedsci.ac.uk/file-download/99436893

Let's Talk

If you would like to discuss how HACT can help you in connecting health and housing through technology, get in touch with Michael and Sarah

get in touch