Digital Health Innovation for Aging in Place

By Arushi Bhardwaj

Aging in place is the ability to stay in your home as you age, as opposed to moving to a long-term care or senior facility. A new report from Rock Health predicts that digital health technologies will be pivotal in helping older adults age in place as they continue to adopt technology. For many adults, aging successfully and gracefully means being able to maintain their independence. There are a few barriers to aging in place which impact long term patient outcomes. Home maintenance, lack of transportation and mobility, inadequate preparation and age-related accessibility are some of the challenges that can make aging in place an arduous goal. With a rapidly aging North American population, chronic illnesses continue to place an increasing burden on healthcare systems. The growing costs of independent and assisted living makes long term care for the elderly, a daunting, and financially straining healthcare challenge.

Unprecedented investment in digital health.

The acceleration of digital health this year because of the pandemic has been remarkable. Health innovation funding brought in around $16 billion this year already, after $6.6 billion just in the third quarter, making way for immense growth in the health technology sector. Historically, digital health companies have shown their potential for population level health impact but have struggled to hit the mark due to insufficient budget. Now, these companies are receiving record-breaking funding, mega-mergers, and IPOs in 2020. More funding means more opportunities and initiatives in the pipeline for issues associated with healthy aging which will inevitably benefit older adults, their caregivers, and families across Canada. In terms of health economics, promoting solutions that improve health outcomes bring about millions of savings in the downstream costs to the Canadian healthcare system.

Tech-savvy aging population embracing technology during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Based on data from the Rock Health Consumer Adoption survey, more than 75% of respondents between the ages of 55 to 65 own smartphones and use applications. However, less than 40% of this age group use healthcare applications on their smartphones. This gap can be attributed to existing tech products overlooking older audiences. An article by Mallory Hackett confirms that older adults are an untapped market for healthcare technology. While an increasing number of aging adults have embraced technology during the COVID-19 pandemic due to increased telemedicine services for seniors, they are not as exciting of a consumer base for digital health apps as their younger counterparts. Health tech companies attract new users with minimalist UI/UX, forgetting that the older generation might need additional guidance regarding usage. In addition to that, the elderly population also deals with health-related issues— for instance, poor eyesight and loss of hearing. Designing applications that are simpler for all users while incorporating accessibility components for the elderly can eliminate some of the challenges here.

Digital health applications are prominently negative.

Digital health solutions directly enable aging in place by bringing accessible care/support to the patients in their home settings. These solutions also indirectly enable aging in place through tools meant for families and caregivers to help them navigate the continuum of care. Multiple startups have already started targeting some of the barriers to aging in place by introducing supplemental benefits, targeting elderly isolation and mental health, addressed food insecurity in older adults, and enabling at home rehabilitation. Some health tech companies also act as a liaison in connecting more home care providers to families, while others proactively support unpaid caregivers while they navigate complex decisions for their older loved ones. One thing to note is that a large proportion of these applications are developed due to a “problem” faced by the elderly, subtly propagating the negative sides of aging – something that is overtly felt by the elderly community as a negative stereotype. Older adults want to use the same technology as younger consumers; something that is designed for every member of the community regardless of their age group.

The article outlines multiple areas where digital health could meet the demand to age in place. However, a large majority of these tech implementations take place post diagnosis. An interesting market for digital health innovations is in chronic disease prevention programs or initiatives. By implementing health promotion programs, the negative patient outcomes can be delayed by years resulting in a better quality of life for those who participate. By improving patient help proactively, the healthcare system would save downstream costs associated with chronic disease comorbidity. Hypertension and diabetes are two of the long-term health conditions that are manageable, however may not have a complete cure. In such instances, introducing digital health programs early on can help address the problem before it becomes an issue. Why wait for people to turn 65 and then introduce health applications to them? The current situation is the best for health promotion models that could significantly lower their risk of developing these conditions in the first place. In my opinion, developers must also focus on building applications that are targeted to better sleep, lower stress hormones, and better immune system among the elderly population.

Technology meant to keep older adults healthy and independent (for e.g., fall detection apps) must now evolve into risk reduction programs. In addition, aging in place can be achieved by keeping older adults out of the hospital and pharmacy and keeping them in their homes. For providers, the recommendation is to incorporate telehealth for consistent check-ups, and remote monitoring while developers should implement direct to consumer medicine platforms to bridge the gap between seniors and health literacy. An example of this would be the Canadian network called AGE-WELL which brings people together to develop technologies and services for healthy aging, offering support and resources through their website. Lastly, there must be policy change as well—the government must plan for the economic and social implications of aging. In conjunction with that, elderly populations must adapt to new developments and be open to the digital health industry.

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