Fitness trackers are prototypes for future mPERS products

By Neil Versel
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Neil_Versel_LargeDon't look now, but we may have our next hot spot in mobile health: mobile personal emergency response systems, or mPERS.

You're probably waiting for me to come down hard on the expected gold rush from venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who see dollar signs in our aging population. Nope. Come and get it, I say.

"Players in the market will enter from the security, [wireless] carrier, remote health and activity monitoring, wellness categories – and fitness technology tracking," says a recent report on the next generation of PERS, published by research firm Aging In Place Technology Watch and Link-age Connect, an organization of senior-living communities.

Link-age Connect surveyed 1,114 Americans ages 55 and found that today's PERS users tend to be elderly, female and living alone in fear of falling. Most use a PERS product for no more than three years, the report says, but that is changing. The "connected senior" will become reality before the end of this decade, according to report author Laurie Orlov, principal analyst at Aging In Place Technology Watch, who presented her findings this week at the What's Next Boomer Business Summit in Chicago.

"We typically are seeing younger customers using mobile PERS devices than traditional PERS; ones that value outside activities like walking the dog, golfers and even elementary school children told by their parents, 'If you need me, press this button,'" the report quotes Andy Schoonover, CEO of system vendor VRI, as saying.

Some of these activities certainly fall into the categories of fitness and personal safety. I've soured on the direct-to-consumer fitness trackers because there are so many of them and because they don't really address the greatest source of spending in our hugely inefficient, $2.5 trillion healthcare industry, namely the elderly and chronically ill. PERS often does, even if it doesn't seem like it in Schoonover's examples.

Orlov, hardly a cheerleader for products targeting the worried well, said that "quantified self"-type devices like Fitbit and Jawbone's UP will morph into products to track the "connected self" for both wellness and chronic disease management. "Devices for quantified and connected selves will saturate their fitness-oriented markets and look to expand into the ever growing world of aging boomers and seniors," she wrote.

I sure hope she's right.

Three months ago, I called for the end to the panic buttons that senior homes routinely give their residents. It's simply too much to ask of elderly people who have fallen to have the presence of mind to press a button to summon help if they have dementia, have hit their heads or have become disoriented.

I don't care if LifeAlert claims to save someone's life from catastrophe every 11 minutes. These "active" personal emergency response systems are based on 30-year-old technology. They are no longer good enough when passive PERS with automatic fall detection, cellular connectivity and even synchronization with wall-mounted motion detectors are becoming widely available.

"The more passive (with opt-in consent) you can make the system, the better. Make it blend into the background so the elderly client doesn’t have to do anything," Michael Dempsey, founder and CEO of mPERS vendor Independence Labs, says in the report. While the Aging In Place Technology Watch report was sponsored by a group of mPERS vendors and conduits like Intel-GE Care Innovations, Royal Philips Electronics and Verizon Wireless, GreatCall, Healthsense and Numera, author Orlov is hardly an industry shill.

Orlov mentions that future trackers should and must account for conditions such as dementia—and even help diagnose such ailments. "Because PERS devices will be capable of tracking gait and other activity changes over time, they will be used to learn behavior patterns first and then be able to identify variations that may signal dementia, increasingly frailty or other types of decline. A senior living alone may spend too much time in a chair or a worker becomes disoriented, becoming lost or endangered," Orlov writes.

A panic button can't help with any of that. Truly passive PERS can.

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NASA astronaut Scott Kelly checks out the Microsoft HoloLens aboard a space station on February 20, 2016. The device is part of NASA's project Sidekick, which is exploring the use of augmented reality to reduce crew training requirements and increase the efficiency with which astronauts can work in space. (Photo by NASA via Getty Images)