Community health, elderly care, and technology

Community health, elderly care, and technology
iStock-Courtney Hale

HEQ explores technology solutions for health and elderly care.

According to figures produced by the World Health Organization (WHO), 20% of the world’s population will be over the age of 60 by 2050. The WHO predicts the number of people older than 80 will triple between 2019 and 2050, rising from 143 million to 426 million. As the healthcare sector works to adapt to the needs of a rapidly growing elderly population, the role of technological and digital innovation in supporting the care and treatment of older patients has become increasingly prominent.

The market for assistive technologies for disabled and elderly patients, covering solutions including hearing aids, mobility devices, assistive furniture and reading aids, worth around €19.91m in 2016, is projected to reach a value of €33.3m by 2023.

“Better tech means better healthcare”

In an address to the Royal College of Physicians on 30 July, the UK’s Minister for Health Matt Hancock outlined his vision for the future of the UK’s healthcare infrastructure, pledging to continue the digital transformation of the NHS and integrate further technologies aimed at benefiting patient welfare.

“Better tech means better healthcare,” Hancock said. “We want to double down on the huge advances we’ve made in technology within NHS and social care; because it’s not really about technology, it’s about people. It’s the child with cystic fibrosis who can have his lung capacity measured at home with a spirometer and an app instead of having to go to hospital, with all the risks that entails. It’s the elderly care home resident, socially shielding for months, able to meet her new grandchild on an iPad. It’s the local GP, already time poor, not having to spend time donning and doffing PPE because she can do her care home check-in online.”

He continued: “Of course sometimes developing new technology is hard and you have to have an attitude of iteration and of flexibility, but none of that makes it any less valuable. So to promote collaboration and change, we need more transparency, better use of data, more interoperability, and the enthusiastic adoption of technological innovation that can improve care. This crisis has shown that patients and clinicians alike, not just the young, want to use technology…we shouldn’t patronise older people by saying they don’t do tech.”

Hancock noted that, in the four weeks leading up to 12 April 2020, only 26% of routine GP consultations were delivered in person; while 71% took place remotely – in the same period in 2019, by comparison, 71% of GP consultations were face to face and only 25% were remote. The COVID-19 outbreak has acted as a catalyst for the adoption and integration of a number of digital solutions which facilitate both the care and treatment of patients and the administrative duties inherent to operating healthcare programmes and facilities.

Dame Barbara Hakin, Chair of the Health Tech Alliance, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably changed the way that the health system operates; and we welcome the Secretary of State setting out his vision for the future of healthcare. Health tech has played a crucial role in the response and the future of healthcare is inextricably linked to the timely adoption of innovation. We look forward to working with the Department of Health and Social Care to realise this vision.”

Practical concerns

When designing products for use primarily by older adults, developers must take a number of age-specific factors into account. Older users as a whole benefit particularly from devices and apps which feature simplified user interfaces – this may include large keyboards or buttons, devices designed for extra grip, screen reading and text-to-speech capabilities, and enlarged font sizes – to account for the operational needs of users with limited dexterity or eyesight.

Ease of use, accessibility and the technological skill level of the projected user are significant factors when targeting older users: the UK’s trial of a symptom tracking app to track and trace the spread of COVID-19 earlier this year saw limited uptake in part because a high proportion of target users were in advanced age demographics and either did not own a smartphone or were not well versed in the use of apps. The WHO notes: ‘Although the “digital divide” has declined between different social groupings around the world, there may still be a considerable “digital use divide”. This reflects an underlying gap in digital media literacy and digital engagement.

The WHO ICOPE Handbook app

The World Health Organization (WHO) has produced a digital tool aimed at health and care workers, to assist them in assessing and treating elderly patients, as part of its Integrated Care for Older People (ICOPE) package of tools designed to support elderly care. The ICOPE Handbook app, available on Apple and Android devices, equips workers in community care settings with an interactive tool providing guidance on addressing priority conditions such as:

  • Limited mobility
  • Symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses
  • Malnutrition
  • Loss or decline of sight or hearing
  • Cognitive decline

The app, which offers the capability to produce a printable summary of assessments, interventions and care plans, acts effectively as an online version of the ICOPE Handbook, which outlines ‘guidance on person-centred assessment and pathways in primary care’. The ICOPE package also includes a comprehensive implementation framework for policymakers and clinical management teams, delivering guidance on assessing and integrating digital care solutions at the community level.

Speaking at the launch of the ICOPE Handbook app, the WHO’s director of the department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing Dr Anshu Banerjee said: “It is essential that services for older people are included in universal health care packages. At the same time there needs to be good co-ordination between the health and social services to provide optimal care when needed. The new package of tools supports healthy ageing with a person-centred and co-ordinated model of care.”

This article is from issue 14 of Health Europa. Click here to get your free subscription today.

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