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Denmark supercharges welfare technology

| Text: Marie Preisler

The Danish government wants the public sector to be obliged to use welfare technology in nursing homes and hospitals to a much larger degree. There has been some progress, but the breakthrough has not yet come.

Welfare technology is the new black in Denmark, and the government and an increasing number of municipalities say the technology will be important when solving one of the largest social challenges facing the Nordic countries: there are not enough people to safeguard the future welfare state. 

Many municipalities and hospitals have in recent years been running a range of welfare technology pilot projects. So far the potential seems to be great, although the gains are not as easy to exploit as previously thought.  

Some municipalities have applied robot vacuum cleaners to clean older people’s homes, and many nursing centres and hospitals have installed special toilets with built-in washing and drying functions, allowing residents and patients to go to the toilet unaided. Hospital doctors and nurses also save time because of automatic cancer tissue recognition technology, automatic packing of surgical tools and easier access to data. Good experiences have also been had with the use of electronic plasters, sensory sheets which prevent bedsores and technology which allows heart patients to monitor their own treatment online. 

But trials have also shown that it is not so easy to exploit the full potential of such technology. Some municipalities have introduced robot vacuum cleaners only to drop them because residents felt they did not clean properly. And the very first trial with washing toilets showed very little of nursing staff’s time was actually saved by allowing residents to go to the toilet unaided, because some of them were not able to operate the new technology on their own. Yet in other areas the benefits are enormous.

Expand the solutions

Better robot technology is being developed all the time in order to ease the workloads for employees in the health sector and improve their working environments. It also increases the quality of life and security for individual residents and saves public resources - especially in the geriatric and handicap sectors.

The government wants to speed up this development and has launched a major strategy aimed at broadening the impact of efficient welfare technology solutions to benefit the entire public sector. The government’s stated aim is to get the public sector to sign up to using welfare technology to a much greater degree, for instance in nursing homes and hospitals. It has established a fund - the Fund for Welfare Technology - in order to gather well-documented experiences of how welfare technology can renew and improve efficiency in the public sector.

In coming years, Denmark and the other Nordic countries are facing a range of challenges which could have a detrimental effect on public welfare or make it much more expensive: the older population is growing while there are fewer people to pay for them. Meanwhile more and more people are suffering from chronic and resource-demanding diseases. There is also less money in the public coffers because of the economic crisis. 

So the public sector must and shall become more effective and to a much greater degree be tailored to the needs of the individual resident, the government says. It points to new welfare technologies as solutions which don’t need more workers, nor do they mean existing workers must work harder.

Workers agree

From the workers’ point of view, welfare technology helps free up resources, leaving more time to aid and assist residents - for instance by using technology which replaces the need for heavy lifting during bath or toilet use. The government and municipalities also expect technology to help make jobs in the welfare sector more attractive, making it easier to attract young workers - a major future challenge.

Yet in the short run welfare technology is being met with a certain degree of opposition from workers. Trade unions recognise that welfare technology can help improve working environments and frees up time for more contact and care for residents. But technology should only be used in areas where workers feel it can help them professionally, underlines FOA, Denmark’s third largest trade union. It represents public employees in the social and health care sectors. For FOA it is crucial that employees are included in the decision-making process before new technology is being introduced and implemented in their line of work.      

New technology changes work processes and responsibility structures and must be adapted to benefit different sectors. This is why it can be a major challenge to get residents and workers to support them. It is necessary to systematically include workers for the duration of the process. They need competence and training and a feeling of ownership of the project, and in reality there is little of this, thinks Susanne Rasmussen, a consultant at the Danish Technological Institute and speaker during a major conference on welfare technology hosted by Denmark’s municipalities in May 2014.

The Technological Institute thinks new welfare technology can be everything from “a cost-increasing infernal machine” to “an independence-inducing miracle with massive savings potential”. It is necessary to begin with the individual resident’s needs. Municipalities must not think that introducing robot technology means they are given a license to print money, says the National Board of Social Services, which has led many of the welfare technology pilots. 


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