Over the past year, I’ve spent time outside of the office helping two uncles, both of whom are struggling with medical conditions exacerbated by their advanced ages. This has been neither a burden nor an obligation; I consider it a privilege to be able to help provide loving care for the two of them.
I am not alone. The impact of the baby boomer generation creates a pressing need for an improved approach to care for the elderly. In the next 10 years, the number of older adults in the U.S. is projected to increase by almost 18 million (PDF); by 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be 65 years old and older.
New, technology-based tools specifically aimed at senior care are an excellent start at improving that care. To build on these innovations, healthcare providers, technology companies and senior advocates must push for the acceleration and adoption of “silver tech” that addresses the unique health/medical, psychosocial and long-term needs of seniors.
To start, we must use technology to curb the physical, emotional and financial impacts of chronic conditions. According to the National Council on Aging, about 80% of seniors have at least one chronic disease such as heart disease, stroke, cancer or diabetes, and about three-quarters have two or more. These are also among the highest cost conditions, accounting for 75% of healthcare spending.
Public and private health systems and organizations must prioritize telehealth services that deliver care “where people live,” particularly among senior citizens who face transportation and mobility challenges. A recent report (PDF) noted that about three-quarters of senior adults have a mobile phone and 64% have a computer. There is tremendous opportunity to promote the growth of senior-targeted digital services that could be used for tele-consults and remote patient monitoring through wearables, programmed reminders to take needed prescription medications and “smart” sensors that alert trusted healthcare providers in the event of an in-home fall (the single greatest predictor of underlying or further health complications).
In the ambulatory surgery center world, there is great opportunity to improve the continuum of care after common senior procedures like cataracts, hip replacements and spinal surgery by changing the way we apply technology in those settings. There is an equally important need for innovation to address psychosocial support for older Americans. About 28% (PDF) of older adults in the U.S. (about 13.8 million people) live alone; social loneliness and isolation are associated with numerous physical conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure and depression. Isolation and disengagement also contribute to cognitive decline.
According to a recent survey by Quest Diagnostics, 2 in 5 older Americans with chronic conditions reported that they do not tell their doctor about loneliness, isolation, transportation barriers and other factors that influence health, with many admitting they "struggle to stay on top of my health issues and need more support." But that same survey found two-thirds of primary care physicians say they don’t have time or bandwidth to address nonphysical, social issues of their older patients with multiple conditions.
New technology may offer the best opportunity to link older individuals with the medical and psychosocial care they need. In Italy, the Ministry of Education focused on a Smart Aging initiative that aspires to not only support physical health but also to improve the quality of life and functioning of older adults.
According to a study in Frontiers of Psychology, "PsiGest and SmartApp … enable the healthcare professionals to communicate with one another about their client, monitor the patient's everyday condition and weekly trends, act promptly in the case of acute negative states (e.g., high levels of arousal), manage the patient's clinical information in a more functional way, and start telepresence sessions." Researchers concluded they "expect that this integrated care paradigm in primary care will reduce healthcare costs and improve quality of life among the elderly. "
What if Medicare funded a digital tablet, a wearable device and internet access to every American over 65?
Would the investments pay off in increased wellness engagement, more preventive care, improved post-operative outcomes, fewer medical complications and cost savings resulting from social isolation? Telemedicine could provide more prompt consultations and minimize the stress and limitations of physical appointments to the doctor’s office. Could older Americans live more independently and experience happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives in their later years? Could we, as family members, worry less and love more?
If we are truly visionary about advancing and realizing the power of “silver tech,” then our only limits are resources and imagination.
Tom Hui is founder and CEO of HST Pathways.