We are all acutely aware that we live in an ageing population. Official projections in 2017 reported that in less than a decade the UK’s population will have grown to over 70million people and by 2025 over 20% of the population will be aged 65 and over.

This ageing population brings with it its own challenges. From increases in disability and ill health to higher care costs and a demand for more accessible environments. With an NHS that is struggling, more and more pressure is being put on occupational therapists to use their creative strengths and talents to support individuals to remain at home, to reduce hospital visits and return home quicker following any hospital admission.

Fortunately, we live in an incredible digital era with new innovations in the health technology industry coming to light all the time. And many occupational therapists have also been repurposing smart technology, like the Amazon Echo, into a form of personal assistant in the home. It is creative thinking like this that can make such a big difference in people’s quality of life.

The need for independence in the home has never been greater and for OTs there has never been a more suitable time to embrace assistive technology to help patients in daily independent living.

Assistive Technology in Practice 

An extract from a report called ‘Future of an Ageing Population’ published by the Government Office for Science in 2016 highlights the major difference that the implementation of smart technology could make to people’s everyday lives and wellbeing:

“Assistive technologies, home-based health monitoring equipment and smart use of big data all have the potential to change care in the home and community, reducing national health and care spending and improving wellbeing. Capitalising on these opportunities will require action to address the barriers to uptake of these technologies, and sensitivity to public concerns on privacy.”

There can be a certain element of fear that surrounds digital devices, in particular for the older generation who have not been introduced to this world of technology the way the younger generations have. This can be a challenge for occupational therapists in encouraging clients to use devices and something that may need to be addressed and considered carefully for each individual situation.

The ability to improve a person’s independence safely and affordably, allowing them to stay in the comfort of their own home can have an enormous positive effect on the person’s wellbeing and will have a knock-on effect in improving healthcare costs.

Dementia – Early Detection

One area that health technology is being explored in-depth is in the diagnosis and early detection of dementia.

The recent AXA Health Tech and You State of the Nation online survey revealed that:

  • 77% of British adults would be willing to access emerging health technologies to detect early signs of dementia as part of regular health checks
  • 54% of adults feel there was a delay between a loved one experiencing symptoms to receiving a diagnosis of dementia.
  • 48% felt that they would have encouraged the person with dementia to visit the doctor at an earlier stage if health tech had been available to accurately detect early symptoms.

Further research of those willing to access emerging technologies showed the types of devices the British public would be willing to use:

  • 87% would be comfortable using eye tests
  • 72% would wear a device that tracks movement patterns of everyday life
  • 30% would be willing to undergo a spinal tap test (the current method being used in research studies to identify early markers of diseases like Alzheimer’s).

This overall attitude towards health technology suggests it could be the way forward for early detection of certain diseases, leading to much-needed early intervention and planning to enable the individual, their family and health professionals to cope better in a more informed situation.

Dr Carol Routledge, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“Innovations in health technology that allow earlier and more accurate detection of diseases like Alzheimer’s could transform, not just speed up, dementia diagnosis and treatment.

We desperately need new and better treatments for people with dementia but research so far suggests that future treatments will be most beneficial when given at the early stages of the diseases that cause dementia. Advances in diagnosis must accelerate at the same pace as the search for new dementia treatments.”

Dr Routledge went on to say: “The barriers to diagnosis aren’t just technical and this survey shows that new technologies could drive changes in people’s attitudes towards visiting their doctor, or encouraging a loved one to, if they notice changes in their memory and thinking skills.”

Home monitoring systems

Home monitoring systems can be a fantastic tool for OTs to use to detect or further understand any problems occurring with a patient, they can also be a great tool for family or friends to be kept informed of any unusual activity.

There are a few different systems on the market and the general idea is that they use discreet wireless motion-monitoring devices placed around the home to detect a person’s movements and activity. This will alert family and health professionals to any unusual activity, for example, frequent trips to the bathroom, leaving the house at an unusual time, whether they have gotten up out of bed, whether they have fallen, if anyone else has entered the house etc.

Alerts can be set up to be delivered via text message or email and can give peace of mind to all concerned with the health and safety of that individual.

There tends to be an initial cost for the equipment and set up and a monthly payment thereafter to accommodate the activity analysis and alert function.

These are just some of the products available on the market: Canary Care (canarycare.co.uk),  Just Checking (justchecking.co.uk) and TextCare (textcare.co.uk).

Intelligent Personal Assistants

The Amazon Echo and Google Home are great examples of utilising technology to increase independence in the home. Through voice command and virtual assistant software these smart speakers can be set up to control lighting, heating, televisions, as well as playing music, setting alarms, creating shopping lists, giving daily news updates, all through voice command. There is great scope with these devices to assist people to live more independently and the interaction can be fun too.

In 2017 the Innovate Trust received funding to pilot a project to trial the use of Intelligent Personal Assistants (IPAs) in the homes of people with learning disabilities. The project is being delivered by Y Lab, Amazon and the local authorities of Rhondda Cynon Taff, Vale of Glamorgan Council and Cardiff Council.

The Innovate Trust stated: “Through having a strong working relationship with people we support, we have been aware of individuals who wanted to be involved in increasing their use of mainstream technology and hence the project is ideal to explore opportunities of developing the model of Supported Living further.

The ideal balance between people using smart tools and carers/support workers, would be to build individuals confidence and competence in using the IPAs to carry out a range of tasks to control their environment – lighting, heating, gain information and advice from social media and receive prompts such as: times of appointments, forthcoming activities and events in their calendar, reminders to take their medication and access home entertainment such as TV and radio. People would rather do these tasks without always calling on staff/carers or waiting for staff/carers to respond when they are supporting other people in the house. This would free staff to carry out more essential or aspirational activities with individuals. Eventually if the model is established, it could result in evolving the role of support staff. The devices also give individuals more private time in their own rooms using the smart technology.”

Wearable Devices

A surge in wearable health monitoring devices has served to make people more aware of their everyday activity and general health. These devices can help to motivate people to keep active and can give real-time statistics on things like heart rate and blood pressure, as well as keeping track of your movements and sleep patterns. There are plenty to choose from and not all have the same functions so be sure to undergo plenty of research to get the one that will be right for your client. Here are some examples:

Fitbit Charge 2

This attractive wristband allows you to track your activity on a daily basis. It tracks number of steps, distance, calories burned, active minutes and your heart rate. It even sends you ‘Reminder to Move’ alerts to encourage you to take 250 steps every hour. In addition to this it has a sleep tracking function to help you understand your sleep quality and it can also use your real-time heart rate to tailor guided breathing sessions. Commonly advertised to an athletic group to be used for its sport functions, but don’t let that put you off, it is a great day-to-day health monitor that keeps users aware of their activity and encourages a healthy lifestyle.

Nokia Steel HR

For those who don’t want to broadcast that they are monitoring their daily activity, the Nokia Steel HR is a great option because it looks just like a stylish watch and is synced to your smartphone to give you your health and activity statistics through the free Nokia Health Mate app. It recognises when you walk, run, swim and sleep and is available in a variety of attractive colours.

 

Apps

Easily downloaded to smartphones to use on the go, there is an abundance of apps to assist in healthcare tracking. From keeping a food diary to apps that help with meditation or stress release, there is something available for everyone.

Food diaries and calorie counters

Keeping a daily food diary can help a user to see where they are over-indulging or where they are not getting enough nutrition in their diet. Many of these apps also have facilities to scan barcodes of food in the supermarket to tell you their nutritional value, helping to keep an eye on daily intake and prompting users to make changes where necessary.

Mental health

Try mood tracking with an app called Catch It to help better understand mood changes in daily circumstances. Or try an app designed to help you relax and destress called Chill Panda, it is suitable for children and adults, it measures your heart rate and suggests tasks to suit your state of mind, like breathing techniques or light exercise.

Condition trackers

There are many apps that can assist in monitoring certain conditions that people live with, most commonly apps are available for people living with diabetes, cancer, COPD and dementia. They are tailored to record symptoms, record treatment and track appointments.

Rehabilitation

Great for keeping track of exercises patients are given to do at home following treatment or surgery. There are many apps to help with stroke recovery too.

If you would like to read more articles like this you can subscribe below.

Get your copy of The OT Magazine