Helsinki's digital services create tools for seniors to stay in their homes

The remote care tools are also helping tackle problems of loneliness with virtual group programs.
By Laura Lovett
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Across the U.S. and Europe, the population is rapidly aging. In Finland this "silver tsunami" is particularly true. 

Roughly 22% of the country’s population is over the age of 65, a figure only expected to grow over the next decade, according to Statistics Finland. Moreover, in about 50 years over a third of the population will be classified as a senior citizen.  

In the nation’s capital, the Digital Service Center Helsinki is creating new tech-enabled tools that help remotely monitor patients at home.

“At least here in Finland, home is really important; it’s kind of a sacred place,” Jere Finne, development manager at Palvelukeskus Helsinki, said at a media event in June. “Our customers want to stay as long as they can, and that is what we are trying to provide to them.”

Older Finnish patients are now starting to use everything from video chats with nurses to smart medication dispensers and even GPS trackers. So far, around 800 clients are using the remote care services. 

The district’s Social and Healthcare Services evaluates patients to make sure the client is a good fit for virtual care. Currently, the most popular reasons for the virtual visits are medication adherence and general wellbeing checks. The evaluation is based on patients’ medical needs, instead of their technical abilities. Finne said that the services make sure all the tech is as easy to use as possible. 

“We don’t make intelligent homes; we make homes that support safety [and] independent living at home,” Finne said. “All of the devices and services are implemented into the background, almost as though they are invisible.”

While the remote care is meant to be part of a hybrid structure, which includes in-person care, the telemedicine check-in visits often occur in lieu of a home care visit. Finne said that the virtual care not only helps the price tag associated with virtual care (which cost about an eighth of the cost of an in-person visit), but also helps the environment. 

“It is also environmentally friendly,” he said. “We have been able to save millions of kilometers [driven] a year by this remote care systems, and that is one of the things we look at in Helsinki — how we can be an eco-friendly city.” 

Finne said the GPS tracking feature is also rapidly growing. Currently, there are approximately 160 users, but by the end of the year he estimates there will be around 300 clients. The tracking unit is able to monitor where a patient travels and sends alerts if the patient wanders outside of his or her designated area. This area can be changed depending on the time of day. 

“So, for example, at night we get an alarm if the customer leaves home and during the day we can have a wider area,” he said. 

While the digital services are increasing their span in the Helsinki region, it is on the lookout for new technologies to implement in the future. 

“We also recognize that voice control and virtual assistants and natural language processing are ... going to be big things in the future," he said. "So far, the Finnish language has been a great barrier here. It’s been really difficult, but we are trying to find solutions.”

Although the main focus of the digital services is maintaining patient safety and wellbeing, the tools are also helping fend off loneliness. Seniors are now able to access various group activities. Finne said the most popular program is the lunch group, where participants can video chat with their peers during lunch. The program also offers virtual group exercise programs, religious sessions and cultural events. 

“The isolation was not one of our focuses when developing the service. … The whole thing has to be on the medical perspective,” Finne said. “But this has brought those things to light, and that is something we now see and can work on.”