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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Dr Ben Maruthappu MBE, chief executive and co-founder of Cera

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In an exclusive interview, Dr Ben Maruthappu MBE, CEO and co-founder of tech-enabled home care provider Cera, discusses the biggest challenges facing the home care sector during the coronavirus crisis, but also the opportunities they represent and the lessons that can be learned from this unprecedented period.

He also provides and update on Cera’s latest recruitment campaign, shares details on new assistive technologies being rolled out this year and explains how the acquisition of Mears Care has helped transform the business.

Can I just start by asking how your business has been fairing over recent weeks, since the coronavirus pandemic emerged?
It’s certainly a challenging time. There are significant pressures on care providers across the country. We want to ensure that your frontline staff and service users are fully protected from the virus and, in addition to that, we are seeing significant increases in demand as the government and the NHS seek to get more people discharged from hospital to home. Of course, with many more older people being isolated at home – there are over 9 million people above the age of 70 – this has also increased the demand for people who need home help. What’s also interesting is that we’re seeing more applications for people seeking jobs, and this is because of some of the unfortunate changes that are happening in other sectors, such as retail, hospitality, airlines and the gig economy. So these changes are challenging, but also represent an opportunity to step up in social care, provide a better and larger amount of services across the country, and also support the NHS at a time when it’s under a tremendous amount of pressure.

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One of the many challenges home care providers are facing is the lack of PPE. Has this been a problem for Cera?
Fortunately, we had a number of suppliers lined up and there are other suppliers that, on a daily basis, we have been reaching out to, determining cost-effective solutions. The government also sent out PPE supplies to regulated providers across the country and that’s been a help, but overall, from our perspective, PPE is something we have a good supply of. If you are not looking to the future and planning appropriately, ensuring you have enough stock and lining up appropriate suppliers, it may become more challenging as the demand for care continues to rise.

Some providers have found that the stock they have received from the government is out of date or damaged, while others say their suppliers are redirecting their stock to the NHS. So it’s not always easy to plan ahead…
The government needs to step up its efforts in social care, especially when it comes to PPE, to avoid issues like out-of-date stock. It’s a challenging time with much uncertainty and I believe it will be even more difficult for smaller providers to get the supplies they need. This is a key moment for care organisations to unify as a community and, where possible, purchase PPE in volume together. As an industry, we also need to share suppliers that are found to be effective in delivering equipment, rather than tackling this independently. We are very keen to collaborate with other providers, and Cera sees this as a moment for the care sector to really come together to ensure we are delivering the best care as possible, while ensuring the safety of our employees.

The coronavirus has exacerbated the workforce shortage in social care. What percentage of your workforce have been forced to self-isolate?
At the moment, it’s less than 10%. If we look at other care providers or organisations in the NHS, I think they share similar statistics, but of course we haven’t reached the peak, and the number of individuals who are getting infected is still continuing to rise. It’s about taking precautions and planning ahead to make sure we are ready.

What steps have you taken to protect those staff members financially?
We cover sick pay and we are looking at creating grants for them. We provide a range of support because our staff are extremely important to us and we have to ensure that they are well looked after, particularly in times like these.

If care providers coordinate their efforts, share their learnings, get on the same page and speak with one voice, they can be much more effective in creating change across the system.

You recently announced the creation of 10,000 jobs across the UK. How is the recruitment campaign going?
We’ve received several thousand applications since we announced our ambitions, and that’s continuing to increase on a day-by-day basis. We see that there is a real demand for additional care services because of the challenges and we want to step up. We want to help where we can in local communities, and we want to support the NHS and local government in meeting their needs. We see a key way of doing that is ensuring we have the right number of staff who can meet those demands and, of course, training people, investing in them and getting them back to work, if, for example, they have recently become unemployed.

You plan to get furloughs starting work as professional care workers in as little as 10 days. How will you achieve this?
As a lot of our recruitment process is digitalised, people can register online and set up their interview within minutes. We will send their information for vetting and train them both online and in person, and we can do that very quickly while meeting standards set by the CQC and Skills for Care.

Do you think the coronavirus crisis has made the public appreciate the value of social care in supporting the NHS and helping people to stay well and living independently at home?
I think it’s definitely helped. When we see the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care almost every day, he will thank both NHS staff and those in social care. Clap for Carers has also been happening, and that’s a great celebration of individuals who are working on the frontline and going above and beyond, be it care workers or staff in the NHS. I think we still have some way to go, but it’s definitely an improvement.

In February you announced the roll out of SmartCare. How beneficial has this technology been since your elderly clients began to self-isolate – both in terms of keeping them well and out of hospital, and connected to their community?
We’ve found that our technology really helps people stay connected. It allows family members to know that their loved one is being cared for and receiving the right services at the right time. It also allows care workers to feel part of a community, even if they can’t see those individuals in person. That connectivity is really powerful, now in particular. It’s great that we can use technology in what would otherwise be a very isolating time.

In terms of keeping people out of hospital, we find that we are able to be much more proactive if we discover changes in a client’s health which could suggest they are going to become unwell. Utilising that information in real time is really powerful. It also means that branch staff can work from home, rather than having to commute and become exposed to the coronavirus. Digital is really allowing our organisation to manage this change much more effectively.

How does the technology work exactly?
We have an app that care workers use to log information about each visit. This information is then analysed in real time by algorithms, and the platform suggests the risks of someone becoming unwell, so that a care worker or branch staff member can take appropriate action where necessary. It also analyses the data from previous visits and makes suggestions to care workers on what types of things they can be doing on their next call. That means the care is much more consistent and proactive, and they’ve got the support of an entire system.

We came across the opportunity to purchase Mears; we saw an organisation that had a long-standing reputation in care and a large footprint across the country.

Are you looking to expand into assistive technology that could help your staff remotely monitor data on aspects of a person’s health?
We partnered with IBM to explore this – for a number of months we have been trialing the use of sensors in the home. These are LiDAR sensors, similar to those used by self-driving cars to ‘see’ what’s around them. In our case, these sensors allow us to determine a range of movements, such as if someone has had a fall, their activity levels, their position, and information about their gait. The sensor is placed in the corner of their room; users do not need to wear it, meaning it’s much less intrusive than alternative types of sensors. This approach allows us to offer 24/7 monitoring and support to service users, so we can provide care even when someone’s not there, giving more peace of mind to users and their families.

We are hoping to roll out this technology more broadly later this year, and explore the use of new service models that combine in-person care with sensor technology, allowing a given care-worker to potentially look after and visit more service users than otherwise would be possible, bringing greater sustainability to the sector.

What does your business currently look like in terms of number of locations, staff numbers and clients? And how many care visits do you carry out per week?
Cera carries out 10,000 visits per day, but that’s increasing weekly. We have over 2,000 members of staff, several thousands of clients, and 20 offices across England and Wales. The majority of our work is local government-funded.

In February you announced the acquisition of Mears Care. What attracted you to this company and how has this transformed your business?
We came across the opportunity to purchase Mears; we saw an organisation that had a long-standing reputation in care and a large footprint across the country. We thought it was a company with a strong foundation, in terms of its traditions in care, but also one that we thought we could make an impact on through new approaches, the use of technology and an innovation-driven culture.

Cera’s SmartCare platform allows care workers to log information about each visit.

Mears said in a statement that it was forced to sell its domiciliary care business as the government ‘repeatedly ignored’ outspoken calls for social care funding. Do you agree that the government should be doing more to support social care?
I think that over the last five years, the government could have done more to support social care. There has long been a call for additional funding, but since the coronavirus pandemic emerged, we have seen increasing support from government, which recognises social care, and I hope that continues long after the crisis ends.

Some providers have told me that although the government has provided extra funding to councils, some of this funding isn’t reaching the frontline…
We have found that the local authorities we are working with are being supportive, but the responses do vary across the country. I also think that local authorities are trying to catch up with the situation, which is changing so quickly. Over the past few weeks we have seen new announcements and new initiatives from government and that makes it quite challenging for a local authority, and in turn for a provider, to keep up and to accommodate those changes. So I can see why some local authorities are acting perhaps not as quickly as others. However, I’m hopeful that in the next week or so we will see a more consistent response.

Do you think that the coronavirus crisis has exposed and underfunded system?
In general, I don’t think the health and care system was ready for this type of crisis, and that has been reflected by the level of intervention that the government has had to make as quickly as it has. If you look internationally, there are very few countries that have been prepared for such a significant health and economic challenge. They’re still getting to grips with the best way to respond to this long-standing issue.

We have found that the local authorities we are working with are being supportive, but the responses do vary across the country.

What lessons can the social care sector learn from this crisis?
What I’ve learned is, firstly, people really appreciate social care much more than they did before and I think our society is learning the importance of key workers, essential services and, more specifically, care workers looking after older people. The sector in general was already trying its best – I know many providers were working flat out to manage their day to day even before the coronavirus pandemic – but the crisis has brought additional challenges and you can see the amount of goodwill in the system where people are trying to pull together. Perhaps it’s shown us that we are stronger together. If care providers coordinate their efforts, share their learnings, get on the same page and speak with one voice to the government and local authorities, they can be much more effective in creating change across the system. I think that’s one lesson that we are learning. I also think that the number of changes that the government is now making is a reflection that a lot of this was possible before.

What are your ambitions for the company over the next five years or so?
We want to continue to expand our domiciliary care services across the country and grow into other types of service lines, be it nursing services, diagnostics in the home, or home GP visits, so that we can support older people living well across the board, regardless of what health and care service they may need. At Cera, we want to build technology that really empowers the frontline to deliver a more effective service and to be supported by data insights so that carers can spend more time caring and less time being caught up with admin, while always being connected to their colleagues and community. Our ambition, more generally, is to try to support the sector in transforming, to encourage people to care better, for social care to become modern and for people to truly recognise the important and great work carers are doing for the country.

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Sarah Clarke

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