Not just another health IT term, telecare benefits the elderly

Amidst a collection of remote patient monitoring terms, 'telecare' has emerged as a word describing proactive care for the elderly.

There is a growing focus on the use of technology to help the older adult population live healthier lives. As the baby boomer generation ages, more adults are living longer with multiple chronic conditions like hypertension, diabetes, osteoarthritis and heart disease. There are also many older adults who are relatively healthy and do not have any type of active disease. Technology can help both of these groups live healthier, safer lives.

According to the American Telemedicine Association, home telecare may be particularly beneficial for a variety of at-risk populations, such as the frail elderly who have mobility limitations and diminished access to transportation. Sensor technologies, for this population, can help alert remote healthcare providers to the possibility of patient falls in the home, as well as help track patients suffering from dementia.

I realize some people may use the term telecare as a synonym for telemedicine, telehealth, remote healthcare delivery or virtual health. I would like to explore specifically how telecare benefits the elderly. Telecare users are not necessarily patients who have active medical diseases. Telecare does not focus on delivering acute medical care. It does not focus on the management of chronic diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or heart failure. It is a form of preventive care and population health management. Its focus is around wellness and safety for healthy people.  

To further explore the concept of telecare benefits, let us start with a few assumptions about older adults living independently in the community.

Older adults watch television. A recent survey found that 62% of Americans watch over 3 hours of TV daily. Taking that into consideration, it makes sense to use television to broadcast health messages, medication reminders and alerts for older adults who may have a difficult time remembering to do so. Televisions can also be interactive and allow the individual to correspond with family members, caregivers and clinicians who may want to periodically check in on the person's health status.

Older adults are late adopters of advanced technology. There are still many older adults using standard mobile phones instead of smartphones. They save money this way: Why should they pay for the monthly data plan if they don't regularly check their email or use mobile applications? Also, many older adults spend most of their time at home anyway, so they don't need a powerful mobile phone that keeps them connected while they're on the go. If these assumptions are true, then it becomes crucial to leverage existing technology in the home to keep individuals safe and healthy.

Household appliances are becoming connected and interactive. Some of the latest refrigerators and microwave ovens are equipped with touch-panels, wireless connectivity and other digital interactivity functions. These devices can also speak to the individual living in the home to generate alerts and reminders about health behaviors.

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A telecare ecosystem can be created in a home through the use of computers, televisions, household appliances and health monitors. Using a standard laptop and a wireless router, an entire telecare health monitoring system could be quickly assembled. The computer would coordinate and send messages to the television in the morning to remind the individual to take his morning pills.

If he happens to forget, then the smart pillbox would send a wireless signal to the PC and to all the household appliances. As the man walks to the fridge to pull out his morning orange juice, the fridge would remind him to take his morning pills. If he still forgets, the microwave or toaster oven would give him an alert before he can prepare his breakfast. If he still skips his morning pills, then an alert would be sent to his daughter so that she could call her father and remind him to take his pills.

The world of telecare is here. Wireless connectivity within a home is changing how gadgets, household appliances and medical equipment communicate and keep older adults safer and healthier. Some people may even wear a sensor that detects falls and alerts family members if a person has not been moving for an extended period of time. Having a functional telecare ecosystem creates the right environment to easily implement other telehealth and telemedicine services if an individual becomes sick and requires remote care. The U.K. has been actively developing telecare for many years, and it is time for the rest of the world to use this technology to keep our older adult population safe and healthy in their own homes.

About the author:
Joseph Kim is a physician technologist who has a passion for leveraging health IT to improve public health. Dr. Kim is the founder of NonClinicalJobs.com and is an active social media specialist. Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchhealthit.com or contact @SearchHealthIT on Twitter.

This was first published in October 2013

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