Digital healthcare: ‘There will be more silver dollars in the world than green ones’

6 Aug 2009

The healthcare challenges of the world’s aging population could be Ireland’s digital opportunity.

Pop culture today captures humanity’s love affair with all things youthful, from advertising to celeb magazine covers to naff TV shows where stick-thin teens battle to be the next Madonna. But we should actually be looking in the other direction, because the world is not getting any younger.

Today in the developed world adults aged 65+ comprise 15pc of the population. This will increase to 25pc of the world’s population by 2030, presenting the world’s governments and societies with a major healthcare challenge.

According to The Economist, in 1900 average life expectancy in developing countries was 30 years and in rich countries it was 50. Today it is 67 and 78 respectively. Across the world labour forces are beginning to shrink and the number of pensioners in the world is starting to rise.

This presents all manner of healthcare and economic challenges. With fewer people working, governments will be hard-pressed to provide pensions. People may have to remain in the workforce longer before they retire and because fewer people are having children, the network of available carers drawn from family is waning.

This impending geo-social nightmare could be one of the opportunities Ireland can seize upon to help it become a leader in digital healthcare; it may also help ensure that our aging population ages with dignity.

A US$30m project funded by Intel and IDA Ireland called the Technology Research for Independent Living (TRIL) Centre and operating from St James’s Hospital Dublin is focused on researching new technologies which enable people to live independent lives for as long as possible and in the environment of their choice.

With partners including Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and National University of Ireland, Galway, over 60 researchers are involved in multidisciplinary research aimed at enhancing quality of life for elderly citizens as well as how they interact with healthcare services and informal care givers such as family and friends.

TRIL created its first fully operational clinic at St James’s and so far more than 600 volunteers have been assessed to tackle issues such as falls – a major issue for elderly people – and how to predict and reduce them.

According to Niamh Scannell, European director of research and innovation at Intel’s digital health group and industry director of TRIL, while digital healthcare is an opportunity for Ireland’s economy it also encompasses its social responsibilities.

“A lot of countries around the world had a baby boom after World War II and many of those people are coming in for retirement. Some countries have reacted better than others. Germany is in a particularly worrying position because 25pc of its population is now over 60.”

She points out that while Ireland has a young population by world standards we have an elderly population facing a questionable financial future. “In terms of pensions Ireland is the worst hit among OECD countries with pensions down 35pc in value. The country partied in the good times and blew it.

“But healthcare costs are going up. As the body ages, chronic disease occurs. This costs a lot of money. Health systems are designed for acute situations but nothing in between.”

Major technology companies such as Philips, Intel, Google and Microsoft are focusing on developing future technologies for homes and hospitals that empower people at home to be more independent and provide medical professionals with the ability to manage digital records.

“The world is getting older and this is going to change the shape of society. There will be fewer care workers. Our view is that technologies such as videoconferencing and PCs could create platforms at home that people can use to connect with general practitioners, hospitals and loved ones.”

At Intel’s Leixlip campus the company played a role in developing a ruggedized digital tablet PC for nurses and doctors in hospitals for managing workflow and accessing records securely. It has since been tested by the NHS in the UK and hospitals in the US.

“Intel’s agenda is based on our vision to create technologies based around a home that will empower a person to connect with health providers and further education.”

Describing the work of TRIL, Scannell said that it involves collaboration between medical specialists, social scientists and most importantly the volunteers themselves. She described the case of a widower called Joe who was active and social until a traumatic fall while cutting a hedge led to him becoming withdrawn, isolated and malnourished.

“He recognised he needed help and being the stoic character he was he volunteered to come into TRIL. The doctors and nurses identified he had failing eyesight and a limp from childhood that had worsened. These presented challenges crossing the road, for example. We got him to a physiotherapist and a social scientist helped him to map a new route to the shops. He felt safe walking to the shop and pub – he got his confidence back.”

Scannell pointed out that the world’s aging population also presents an economic opportunity in terms of products and services for enterprising people with ideas to serve elderly people.

“There are more silver dollars in the world today than green ones, and with so many people unemployed there are opportunities for dynamic social entrepreneurs who can provide services for elderly people such as DIY. For example, one of the most dangerous things an older person can do is stand on a chair and change a light bulb: their blood pressure drops and they can become dizzy.”

She cited social entrepreneur Mary Nally from Summerhill, Co Meath who established Third Age, a whole network of organisations and support systems for the elderly which have had a positive impact on the whole community.
Scannell also believed there could be services that transition-year students could provide for the elderly in their community, such as teaching them to go online to shop for groceries, book flights, conduct online banking and communicate with families via Skype or Windows Live Messenger through the Log On Learn programme.

“We can look at the world’s aging population as a possible sociological disaster or turn it into an export opportunity. We see the technological merits of this research and we believe that there are so many digital technologies that can be created in Ireland and exported elsewhere.

“I get very frustrated as a citizen that we have no national strategy that looks at aging – something that tries to understand it and that can create a stimulus strategy around jobs and digital exports in this area. There are enormous export markets depending on what you are doing in this area.

“We have no problems getting elderly people to volunteer; they want to design their own future. It’s up to the government and entrepreneurs to listen – the silver dollar will be bigger than the green dollar,” Scannell said.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years