Digital health technologies can reinvigorate the aged population

By Dave Muoio
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It’s hard to argue that steadily increasing lifespans are anything but a positive, but medical breakthroughs over the past few decades have brought with them another pressing challenge for digital health to overcome: aging.

“We’re not getting any younger, either individually or as a society. In fact, for the first time in history, by 2020 there’ll be more people over 65 than under five,” Dr. Joseph Kvedar, vice president, Connected Health, Partners Healthcare, said during his keynote presentation at the Connected Health Conference in Boston. “Why do I bring up those statistics to point out the challenge? Because every time we do care delivery … we’re doing it one-to-one. You’re all really bright people, you can do the math. We’re going to run out of people to deliver care if we don’t think about doing it differently.”

In his talk, Kvedar said that for centuries healthcare has always relied on the young to provide care and support for their elders. As the latter population grows, however, digital technologies may become especially necessary to mass-deliver personalized care, and to help the aging population maintain their good health.

Among the first steps to doing so is to get over tech’s perception that those over the age of 50 can’t use or understand new technologies, he argued. This demographic still generates billions of dollars to the economy, are twice as likely to start a new business than those who are younger, and provided an experienced perspective on complex issues, he said. Even those just 15 years older who qualify for social security are more and more often still capable of working, he noted.

For this group, new technologies outside of the healthcare space are already fulfilling needs. Research has shown that the aged population is more likely to lead longer, healthier lives if they have ample social connectivity, physical activity, and a sense of purpose, Kvedar explained. Already, social media, fitness wearables, and other technologies are being adopted by older demographics to fulfill these gaps, and for the most part healthcare still hasn’t taken notice.

“Think about all the opportunities you have now to go online and sign up for some kind of program, website, et cetera, where you can offer your services,” he said. “I’m going to sign up to be a mentor, to be a consultant, to give back from 4:00 to 6:00 on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, whatever it may be. The internet and mobile has allowed us to be able to deliver services wherever and whenever in such a way that we can still feel retired and able to give back … we have to be able to build that into public health, have to build that into our policies, build that into the way we think that technology really has a role to play.”

However, the aged population’s more direct need for technology comes in the form of chronic disease or other life-threatening disease care. Here, Kvedar returned to his opening points on the unavoidable need for new care delivery options, and offered currently available remote care technologies as a solution.

[Delivery of chronic care] is a real challenge because as healthcare professionals we just think that you have to come into the office, and most patients and consumers just think that they have to come into the office,” he said. “But we all know [that with remote care monitoring technology] you can have one care provider managing by exception, managing hundreds of individuals. And if you set it up right, they will feel more cared for, they will feel more connected. We’ve seen this in our own programs.”

Kvedar noted that there are several products already being developed commercially for in-home aging care, such as Catalia Health’s Mabu personal robot, Hasbro’s interactive companion cats, and various video consultation services. Despite some caveats, he said that these solutions are continuously becoming cheaper and more “human,” and should be continually pursued to bring better care to a growing population.

“None of these should ever be used to substitute a human connection. That’s a bad use of any of these technologies,” he said. “But when you can’t be with your love one because you have a life, and in a care facility when you just can’t have enough people to get around, if these things are thoughtfully designed and brought in they will be able to drive home that connected care feeling that individuals will need when they get older. We have to design that right.”