Patients, Users & Beyond

Patients, Users & Beyond

Ageing and medtech: moving on from longevity


The ageing population is a major challenge facing healthcare services in the UK and worldwide, however it also offers huge opportunities for medtech innovators. Janice Morton talks to two entrepreneurs whose innovations focus on improving quality of elderly care in very different ways

elderly care

According to Kevin Wilson, medtech specialist at UKTI Life Sciences, ageing is fuelling the medtech market (now valued at over £7 billion in the UK and forecast to reach £276 billion globally in 2017). And the industry will continue to grow as:

  • more people live for longer. (The number of over-80s in the UK will rise from 3 million today to 8 million by 2050.)
  • more people suffer from chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia. (Treatment and care for such conditions currently takes up 70 per cent of England’s total health and care expenditure.)
  • health budgets get ever tighter. (In 2016, £1.1 billion was cut from the NHS repairs’ fund, which is used to replace outdated or broken equipment.)

From remote monitoring of drug intake to fall prevention devices, from apps to reduce social isolation to GPS for tracking dementia patients’ movements, medtech offers diverse, cost-effective and efficient solutions for caring for older people in the rapidly changing health environment.

The memory aid app

Around 850,000 people in the UK have dementia, with numbers set to soar to 2 million by 2051. For Mary Matthews, it was the loss of her sister to Motor Neurone Disease and a desire to quickly access memories of her that led to the eventual development of the Memrica Prompt app. ‘My early research with dementia patients and their families revealed there was a lot of support and technology for people in the later stages but less early on,’ she says. ‘That’s when anxiety and frustration about forgetting essential information can lead to avoidance of social situations, isolation and depression. I wanted to create something that would help them live well with their memory problems.’

With Memrica Prompt, users create notes about things they want to remember, and the system adds data, image and sound files to show personal context about people and places, linking them to reminders to help prepare for events. Families and carers can help manage the system via a web dashboard. Analytics sends an alert if a change in behaviour is noted. ‘Our aim is to offer that bit of extra support that helps people with memory problems – be it related to stroke, brain injury, MS or other conditions – to maintain their social confidence, independence and dignity.’

Improving residential care

Tackling a different challenge, Kareinn focuses on improving quality of care for older people in residential homes. According to the latest LaingBuisson survey, there are an estimated 426,000 elderly and disabled people in residential care and nursing homes, and stories of poor quality care abound in the media.

‘Around 90 per cent of care homes still use paper records;, our digital care timeline, frees care workers from daily paperwork,’ explains Kareinn co-founder Eric Kihlstrom. Its intuitive design means the easy-to-use software, which is accessible on smartphone, tablet or desktop, enables carers to have quick access to care plan information and to spend more time (on average, 1,000 extra hours) offering residents more personal, higher-quality care. ‘We’ve also found that carers using our system record five times more data in a quarter of the time,’ Kihlstrom adds – information on daily care that is crucial not only for residents’ carers, GPs and families but also for Care Quality Commission assessments. Kareinn is also working with the Friends of the Elderly, with input from Social Care Institute for Excellence, on devising the next generation of best practice for digitising care planning based on person-centred design principles and data analytics.

Kareinn’s innovation is currently being used by a dozen UK care homes, and the company is working with several care home groups to develop next-generation software. It has also been approached by overseas care homes groups and is evaluating the opportunity to expand.

Challenges en route to market

Memrica Prompt is now close to launch (early 2017). ‘The app is currently in open beta, testing with around 200 users, and their feedback will help us redesign our second test version,’ Matthews explains. So with the market in sight what has she learned along the way?

Mary Matthews

Mary Matthews

‘We were lucky to be funded by Nominet Trust, Innovate UK, Health Social Innovators and UnLtd. We even had investment from Uber,’ says Matthews, who won the UK arm of UberPitch, a Europe-wide competition involving 4,000 startups after pitching in the back of an Uber cab! But she is aware of the difficulties of obtaining funding in this medtech area. ‘Investors are trying to balance the huge opportunity an ageing population presents with market readiness. Some are nervous about whether the older generation is ready to use the technology being developed. My experience says yes. Many 60- to 70-year olds are au fait with technology and will continue to use it as they age.’

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Kihlstrom agrees that investors can be shy of funding ageing innovations, especially those aimed at the NHS market with its complex procurement processes and multiple layers of decision-making. ‘Funding is an ongoing issue for any medtech company. Our initial funding came from Seedcamp. We are now seeking angel investment to improve the product and looking for Series A funding next year. Overall, he believes there are plenty of investors out there looking for global opportunities to fund products, particularly those with an independent living focus and ageless design that gives them a broader appeal than just the ‘longevity’ market.

Another challenge for Matthews was finding the right demographic to test Prompt on. ‘We started off working with the NHS and a hospital memory clinic but found our approaches were at odds. As a digital company we wanted to work in an agile way – explore, test, feedback, iterate – while the NHS, quite rightly, wanted to take us through its lengthy governance. Also people with early dementia don’t generally attend memory clinics – they may not have a diagnosis or be primarily managed through their GP – so we weren’t connecting with them there. Eventually, we opted to test through community and grassroots groups, which was right for us.’

The future for medtech ageing innovations

With those lessons learned behind them, what do they think will shape the future market for ageing medtech?

Eric Kihlstrom

Eric Kihlstrom

‘Helping people live independently will be a key focus,’ says Kihlstrom. ‘While Kareinn is focused on residential care at the moment, over time we see our services evolving into domiciliary care – supporting people in their own homes. The care industry will go through a digital transformation but it needs to be done one step at a time. We have an opportunity to build trust with what we offer today and then to partner with our customers through that transformation.’

Good design is something Matthews feels is missing in many current solutions and will be a bigger consideration in the future. ‘Today’s older generation don’t think of themselves, or want to be identified, as old. They want technology that supports their physical and cognitive abilities yet is well-designed, discrete and “cool” – products they want to use, not need to use.’ This may mean looking beyond the “longevity” industry for inspiration and a bigger focus on ageless design.

Data sharing has a big role to play too, according to Kihlstrom. ‘There is so much information out there that isn’t being used, that could help keep older people out of hospital and healthier, but it’s just not being shared,’ he says. ‘Healthcare organisations and other service providers should share appropriate information on the people they serve (with their permission, of course). For that to happen, it’s vital we build trust between those delivering care, the patients and their families.’

Summing up, Matthews says: ‘The medtech market in ageing innovations will explode. Today’s 55- to 75-year olds are still largely underserved by technology providers, and yet they are the generation with the buying and political power – we ought to be giving them more attention. Targeting that age group is a winner, with the right product that fits in with the way they live and look at their lives.’

Check out Aging 2.0, which aims to help entrepreneurs successfully address the health needs of older people around the globe. Local chapters rely on volunteers to make events happen, so why not get involved? Its next event is on 24 January 2017 at 6pm in Google’s Campus London. Sign up here.

About the author

Janice Morton is a freelance writer and editor with more than 25 years' experience of producing features and news for print and online publications, on subjects ranging from health and education to travel, fashion and charities.

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