- 13 February 2018
Can assistive technology be a game-changer?
Tales of doom and gloom in health and social care have become a permanent fixture of the 21st Century media landscape.
No matter how much is thrown at the problem you can be sure it won’t be long before we hear about the next ‘crisis.’
Is it any wonder then that talk of reaching a ‘tipping point’ is likely to be met with some scepticism?
Yet maybe this time we should be paying more attention.
Last month senior councillors and care providers sent a letter to the Observer saying a failure to fill a £400m black hole in back pay has put social care at a tipping point, creating “widespread anxiety for carers and those who use care services”.
A week later Northamptonshire County Council became the first local authority in almost two decades to implement a “section 114” notice banning new expenditure.
Age UK are lobbying for more funding, citing a £160 million cut in total public spending on older people’s social care over the past 5 years, despite a rapidly increasing demand because of our ageing population.
Is more money the answer and are other countries coping better?
Certainly not in France where a national strike of care workers was organised – for the very first time- on January 30th. The action highlighted the shortcomings of their system, with at least nine trade-unions, together with AD-PA (Association of Directors in the Service of Older People), calling to improve the status of caregivers; improved working conditions and de facto the living conditions for people in care; and reduced costs for care at home.
But “It is not so much extra money that the sector needs”, says Romain Gizolme, Director of AD-PA “What’s missing is the political will to reform”.
The French government responded by offering an additional 50 million Euros to be distributed among regional health agencies on an as needs basis
At the heart of the issue is a reform act aiming to reduce a bloated social care budget which government say is unsustainable. The new act requires state subsidiaries to be based on the degree of dependency of residents in each care home. The objective is to send people home more rapidly, where theoretically they will be supported by care and health workers. The trouble is the majority of French regions do not have the means or capacity of GP’s, nurses and/or skilled care workers to meet increasing demand.
Thierry Roussel, cofounder of French SME Senioradom believes that technology is the answer but says neither local nor regional government are making the effort necessary to understand and leverage the huge potential of assistive technologies to transform the way we manage health and social care for older adults.
I visited Thierry and his team in Paris where they are developing and an innovative system made up of different movement sensors and door opening detection, as well as an unobtrusive alert and a geo-localisation wearable designed to automatically detect behavioural anomalies due to a fall, a person feeling faint or a deteriorating mental condition such as Alzheimer’s.
Although the unit cost for the Senioradom solution is relatively low, take up in France has been slow.
For Thierry Roussel Senioradom is a labour of love. He set up the company because he couldn’t find a good care solution for his mother who is in her nineties. Although she has become used to living with her son’s tech, like most older adults his mom is still suspicious when it comes to being 'monitored'. Thierry believes the only way to scale in Europe is for government and local authorities to embrace smart technologies and communicate the benefits to older citizens and their younger relatives, which basically means everyone.
Ironically, it is the Chinese who have become Senioradom’s largest customer.
A profitable market yet to be developed
China currently has 200 million senior citizens, yet this technology is new to them. A rural exodus of the active population towards major cities and the low income of a large proportion of an ageing population, as well as a lack of hospitals and doctors, has pushed China to find affordable solutions that are quick to deploy, to help the Chinese administration face this significant social challenge.
Last month Senioradom signed an agreement with Sigfox, one of the world’s leading IoT connectivity services, in Beijing in the presence of both the French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping to begin their deployment in the Chinese market.
The Chengdu High-Tech Industrial Development Zone has committed to an investment of almost €300M to deploy the solution in China’s 20 biggest cities, following a one-year, 1500-person trial, beginning in 2018 in the city of Chengdu.
So if the Chinese get it, why don’t we?
Could it be that we are still suspicious of the private sector interfering with the National Health or Social Care services?
Richard Branson was one of the first entrepreneurs to engage with the NHS. According to Sir Richard it was Gordon Brown who first asked if Virgin could use its business experience to save the NHS and local authorities money by running it more efficiently and by innovating in the way those services were undertaken.
Virgin Care was set up seven years ago to take on the challenge. While he acknowledges there is still much to do Sir Richard is proud of what has been achieved including a programme which has helped reduce the number of older adults who fall after leaving a community hospital.
But there are still plenty of people who believe that Virgin Care is exploitative, a claim which Sir Richard is keen to address:
“Contrary to reports, the Virgin Care group has not made a profit to date. If and when I could take a dividend from Virgin Care (which would make us a profit over and above our overall investment), I will invest 100% of that money back into helping NHS patients young and old, with our frontline employees deciding how best to spend it.”
Sir Richard has also set up “The Elders”, a group of independent global leaders standing up for peace and human rights: “We are working on bringing universal free healthcare to as many countries as possible. In our travels around the world The Elders cite the wonders of the NHS. The Virgin Group and I will play our part through Virgin Care in making sure the NHS continues as a free, well run service for decades to come.”
Jeff Bezos, who is about to shake up the American health market through a partnership involving Amazon, JP Morgan and Berkshire Hathaway is unlikely to be quite so altruistic.
This week I will be attending the AgeingFIT conference in France where I expect to learn about innovative new solutions and work in progress. Most of them will come from small businesses led by entrepreneurs committed to making a profit and social impact.
Informed by this experience I will focus more on the potential of SMEs to shake things up next month.
Watch this video to find out more.