Thought Piece #2: Health technology and older people

30 June 2016

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Boarding my train for a long weekend away recently, clutching  the latest glossy magazines, it was a joy to see the cover ‘girls’ were in their 60s and 70s, and looking gorgeously fit, healthy and full of life.  That we are living longer healthier lives is a fact - with over 65s making up 17% of the population in 2010 - an increase of 1.7 million since 1985, projected to rise to 23% by 2035 – and a cause for celebration!   

Digital technology, now very much part of our everyday lives, is increasingly playing a part in helping longer lives remain active and fulfilling and evidence is growing to dispel the myth that older people are slow to take it up.

Digital communication channels

Digital communication channels are increasingly common in helping over 65s who find it difficult to travel to GP and hospital appointments. Most GP practices now provide telephone consultations with video and Skype often also an option. The eConsult service developed by the Hurley Group in London, for example, covers over 1M patients. 

These same online social media options are also being used to tackle the social isolation and loneliness which can have such devastating effects on older people’s health. In Liverpool, the “My House of Memories”, a digital memory app for people with dementia uses content from the 1920s-1980s to stimulate memory and conversation.  Digital tech even offers a robot pet in Japan: PARO is an advanced interactive robot responds to the human voice and to movement bringing the benefits of animal therapy into hospitals and care homes care homes.

Digital technology

Digital tech is also helping older people with reduced physical skills to maintain independent and active lives. Finalists in our AXA PPP Health Tech & You Awards in April included AXA PPP Health Tech & You Awards in April included: the GyroGear Steady Glove, which assists people by counteracting hand tremors; Dermaspray, a devise that sprays precise doses of medication for those with limited dexterity; and the category winner, Walk with Path, an aid to improve gait in patients with Parkinson’s and similar conditions.   

Staying as healthy as possible for as long as possible is the aim and digital technology is enabling huge improvements in early diagnosis and treatment.  Dementia is high on the list of concerns; it is predicted that by 2025 there will be one million people in the UK living with dementia Cantab Mobile, an iPad-based sensitive screening tool for healthcare professionals to identify the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease in under ten minutes,;  already over 1,000 Cantab Mobile memory assessments are being completed every month in the NHS. Finalists in AXA PPP sponsored Health Tech & You Awards in April also included exciting developments, such as: Extreme Health, 3D skeletal motion tracking via webcam to support clinically supervised home based rehabilitation from common ailments in the elderly, including stroke.

Many older people, with support from carers and family are using technology to take greater control and be active participants in their care.  ‘Coordinate My Care’ is a shared health record between patients, carers and statutory health organisations in London.  It provides the ability to create a personalised care and end of life plan; already over 25,000 personalised care plans have been and can be shared electronically with care providers, especially in the emergency situation.  AXA PPP Health Tech & You Awards winner, ‘Patients Know Best’ enables patients to own and understand their own health records.  Self-monitoring of known conditions using technology is increasingly being used   by older people to keep track of their condition and vital signs and to remind them to take their medication, with support from care professionals online.  Even familiar household objects are being used, for example, a kettle able to take people’s blood pressure using sensor pads in the handle each morning as they make their tea.  

Many of us, often in partnership with professional care services, are using tech to watch over and provide prompt help and support to our older relatives.  Electronic monitoring systems that automatically alert health care staff when help is required are in common use in residential and domestic settings. Sensors can be fitted into the home that will alert carers if, for example, someone is not in bed when they should be, a sign that something may have gone wrong.  Technology is also helping older people avoid trips and falls, one of the most common and debilitating causes of loss of independence and health, examples include wearable technology such as Hip Impact Protection, another of the AXA PPP Health Tech &You Award finalists. 

Busting the myth

The myth that older people are resistant to technology is being well and truly busted.  Sure, there are still older people like my 83 year old mother-in-law who has never used a computer and only switches on her mobile phone to make a call.  But there are more and more like my Dad (85) who is on Facebook, prefers Skype to phones and monitors his own vital signs and medication compliance with tech at home as part of managing his long term heart condition.  

This is reflected in our annual Health Tech & You State of the Nation survey in September 2015, which showed that over 20% of 55-74 year olds believe that using health technology to regularly monitor and manage their health would have a positive impact, and a third of people aged over 55 use technologies including blood pressure and sugar level monitors and mole checkers.  The importance of tackling problems of older age is rising; in 2014 only 5 per cent of respondents were concerned about tackling dementia, in 2015 the figure has jumped to 14 per cent, making it the third biggest concern after obesity and heart disease.

The survey asked how people might feel about using some of the amazing technology available in their everyday lives as they begin to need more help. A majority of the public aged 55-75 would choose a range of technology to help manage their or their parents’ health and wellbeing for any future condition, with the exception of technology to help with dressing.  Although, it seems that women are slightly readier to embrace technology that could help with more personal activities such as eating and dressing.  The survey also explored how people might react to robot, rather than human, helpers, in particular to helping maintain one’s dignity.  Robots were favoured for activities such as getting upstairs and going to the toilet, whereas human assistance was preferred for washing, dressing and eating.  This perhaps reflects the importance of human interaction in more social activities.

There is clearly a good argument for responding to this growing appetite for assistive technologies; including as our survey found, robotic help and communication aids, which are top of people’s wish lists.  Industry has already identified this growing demand, and older people are increasingly a major target for health technology; this will become even more meaningful as personally generated information can be integrated into a personally held health record. Technology designers, software and hardware, need to ensure that the technology is as simple and user friendly as possible, so that these tools make independent living for the older person a real option for longer.  And, finally, care professionals and service providers need to embrace and offer the best of these technologies to the older people they care for, which will mean investment in appropriate training and development of staff as well as having the technology itself available.