Innovation & Entrepreneurship

Innovation & Entrepreneurship

UK’s ageing crisis has become the ‘new’ climate change – can digital innovation save the care system from collapsing?


Max Parmentier is CEO and founder of Birdie – a holistic home care platform that empowers older adults to live at home independently for longer. Here he tells us why we have to hurry up with the technology when it comes to elder care…

In an ageing society where people are living longer, often with debilitating conditions that require complex medical interventions, what is the future of healthcare?

The truth is that a social crisis of epic proportions is unfolding before our eyes, made worse by dwindling budgets, a continuously revolving door of qualified care professionals entering and leaving the industry, and a lack of innovation in the sector that has failed to address some of the fundamental issues crippling our public care and health services. The ageing ‘issue’ has in many ways become what I call the ‘new climate change’: a global issue, the amplitude of which is not yet recognised but which requires systemic solutions now.

In a world where nearly every part of our lives has been optimised for the better – from the way we bank to the way we shop – it’s astounding to think that salient, scalable technology has historically failed to tackle one of the most pressing issues of modern day living: growing old, better.

Preventable problems

We’re seeing great technological advancements in healthtech, but elder care still remains an area yet to be meaningfully optimised by digital practises. The victims here involve not just the burnt-out care workers single-handedly undertaking both the physical and emotional challenging workloads of two people, but that of the senior individuals who rely on the system and that of their concerned families. Too often, I hear stories of an older adult lying on the bathroom floor for two days following a fall because nobody could come to the rescue. In this day and age of AI and self-driving cars, instances like this should simply not happen.

Things are changing, albeit slowly, and ventures pioneering ‘agetech’ are steadily emerging to address some of the care industry’s pain points. With local authority budgets scant, start-ups in this space are best poised to raise significant funds to develop and introduce disruptive technology that can have a real and positive human impact on the lives of some of society’s most vulnerable people.

From chatbots and virtual companions that temper the everyday loneliness many elderly people feel living on their own, to tools that endeavour to put some semblance of order, especially in terms of admin and paper work, within the disorganised field of domiciliary care. Digitised solutions and hardware can optimise the way in which elder care can be managed in a way that can have life-changing effects on a human level, as well as on an operational and economic level too.

Care and communication

Digitisation of processes can, for example, provide seamless communications between all parties involved in an elderly individual’s care as it can allow care providers to ‘go paperless’ and shorten time-consuming admin and reporting. It can facilitate communication and the sharing of information of an elderly person’s care between care professionals, families and other medical practitioners. Indeed, there has been a spate of such ventures that have formed recently, enabling clinicians and healthcare professionals to communicate in a secure and compliant way – a bit like a “WhatsApp for doctors”.  And of course, there are digital solutions that can provide families with peace of mind – allowing them to follow their elderly loved one’s health and wellbeing 24/7 and in real time.

The health tech sector has evolved quickly around the usage of data for both prevention and cure, from cancer detection to other diagnostic tools that present as a virtual personalised healthcare assistant. Within the next decade, it’s reasonable to predict that such tech systems will be refined enough to ensure high accuracy when it comes to health predictions and prognoses long before these manifest as severe problems. Access to actionable data that enables individuals to have more power over the management of their health will be readily available as well as increased accessibility to hyper personalised healthcare to a broader range of patients. Finally, accessibility to richer data than ever before will be able to assist health practitioners and clinicians in making key decisions.

Much of this innovation in existence today is currently embryonic and clunky – but its potential is exciting. Yet while such technology is being trialled within other areas of healthcare, elder care remains stubbornly antiquated and disjointed. For example, there’s no communication among care providers, the hardware is obsolete and there is no usage data aggregated that can be used to monitor and flag potential issues in an individual’s care.

Max Parmentier

Wasteful practices

Let’s look at this problem in greater context. Last month, NHS figures revealed that nearly 1,000 elderly people were unnecessarily admitted into hospital for ailments and conditions that, if managed and pre-empted properly, would not require hospitalisation.

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This escalating trend in admissions – a rise of 107 per cent since 2003 for those aged 65 to 69 and 119 per cent for those in the 75 to 79 age bracket – is of particular concern, resulting in elderly people blocking much needed hospital beds and a putting further strain on NHS hospitals.

With the Office for National Statistics projecting that by 2066 a quarter of the population will be aged 65 years and over, the problem shows no signs of abating unless something can be done to manage common age-related conditions like urinary tract infections and angina effectively.

It’s an old adage but there’s truth in the saying that prevention is better than cure. It’s the predictive potential of hard data that is of particular interest. What if, through connected devices enabled by visual, motion and sonar sensors as well as information manually inputted by care professionals, data could be cultivated at source and tracked by a server to flag unusual patterns in behaviour that might be symptomatic of a bigger problem unravelling?

Increased frequency of bathroom visits logged by door sensors could signpost a urinary tract infection; equally, no bathroom visits could indicate dehydration. Increased time in bed and decreased physical activity at home could signify weakness or depression, while sensors that flag whether a care recipient has left the house during an unusual period of time (say between 2am and 6am) should not only be addressed immediately in case of dementia patients, but could also indicate another medical problem causing cognitive impairment or confusion.

Machine learning and AI combined with human input can provide the backbone to predictive analytics and instantly actionable data in real time. Sophisticated digital products that have geofencing capabilities, volumetric radars, capacitive sensors and hypersensitive microphones can work with software and other medical systems to enrich observation data capture to positive effect. By bringing the care ecosystem together, identified issues can also be addressed instantly. Such tools empower the care professional to take the right action at the right time.

No time to waste

At the start of my journey in ‘agetech’, what struck me was the conviction of the geriatricians we spoke to, who believed that better communication between care providers and clinicians based on hard data could easily lower emergency admissions to hospitals in elderly people by 20 per cent. Indeed, the average life expectancy of an older adult after his or her fourth admission into hospital in the same year is just six months. Predictive analytics can save lives but, most importantly, improve its quality too.

Our connected world when leveraged correctly can make all the difference to an older person’s care management. It could determine the quality and length of time they are able to live independently, with little assistance, in the comfort of home. It could alert potential care professionals and clinicians to ailments and developing conditions long before they become problems requiring hospitalisation. Ultimately, it can drive the standards of domiciliary care and practices up, circumvent the issue of bed blocking and potentially save the government millions of pounds in the process.

One thing is clear: elder care is in desperate need of innovation. The rate at which it is operating is not sustainable. The sector must urgently embrace a new way of working with technology to address some of the fundamental issues that is causing the system to crumble and ensure that the older generation is not failed.

About the author

Journalist and editor Kathryn Reilly has worked in consumer, contract and medical writing for more than 20 years.

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