High-tech healthcare for seniors not always effective, necessary

Enthusiasm for technology is rampant in healthcare, particularly when it comes to seniors. Proponents insist it can extend quality of life for the elderly, allowing them to remain independent and healthier longer.

A recent Reuters story details new technologies specifically designed for seniors. One, a bodysuit designed by engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is threaded with wearable sensors can monitors vital signs and alerts clinicians to problems. Another, called Paro, is a high-tech stuffed animal that responds to voice input, and appears to help calm dementia patients. A third is the Guide, an at-home monitor pioneered by insurer Humana Corp., which tracks a patient's weight, blood pressure and other vitals, and interacts with them about any out-of-norm results.

But exciting as these technologies are, some evidence says they may not be the panacea their creators were hoping.

A recent study from researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Purdue University found that at-home remote monitoring doesn't actually reduce readmissions for older patients with multiple health issues. Readmissions for 205 study participants, whose weight and blood pressure were monitored, and who received videoconferencing support, were exactly the same as non-monitored patients. And their mortality rates were actually higher--nearly 15 percent for the study group vs. about 4 percent for the usual care group.

The debate gets even muddier in the hospital setting, where one physician is speaking out against the use of advanced technology for at-risk seniors.

Here's how geriatric specialist Bruce Naughton, associate professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo, sees it: High-tech intensive care units, monitoring and other technologies are simply interfering with seniors' ability to make cogent choices about end-of-life issues. With advanced technology available, doctors and families alike find it hard to decline life-extending treatments, and as a result, often don't opt for hospice care until their very final days.

"We need to acknowledge that non-beneficial care is also wasteful care," Naughton said in a university statement. "As physicians, we often feel that it is our responsibility to provide all possible interventions, but really our job is to provide the best care, which in some situations is not going to be the high-tech option."

To learn more:
- here's Naughton's University of Buffalo statement
- dig into this Reuters article