According to the World Health Organization, the number of people aged 60 years and over will reach nearly 2.1 billion by 2050, up from 900 million today.
Here in Hong Kong, the number of people aged 65 or older will reach 2.58 million by 2064, equivalent to more than a third of the city’s current population. Hong Kong currently has the highest life expectancy worldwide – 84.3 years – something that should be celebrated and reflects its impressive healthcare system.
However, older people tend to be heavier users of healthcare services and the challenge is how to enable them to live independent active lives, within the means of the taxpayer and their extended families.
To help solve this, the Hong Kong government has earmarked HK$1 billion to procure, rent and trial new technology products that promise to improve the lives of elderly people.
Technological advancements can be used to help meet this growing need, as well as improving the reach, impact and efficiency of healthcare services in general.
The United Kingdom, which faces similar challenges to Hong Kong, has committed nearly HK$14 billion of government funds to invest in healthcare innovation and develop technologies that help people live independently for longer.
While the immediate objective is to help address the need in the UK, the secondary intention is to develop services that can be applied worldwide.
Community health is under particular strain. The elderly use General Practitioner (GP) services more than other age groups. As this population grows, so does demand, putting strain on finite resources and creating the need for a different approach.
Babylon Health, a UK-based company, uses technology to provide initial medical advice remotely through the “GP at hand” team. This reduces the load on healthcare professionals by using artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver personalized health assessments, treatment advice and 24/7 virtual medical appointments.
Users receive medical advice by chatting with AI robots, and the algorithm accurately diagnoses 80 percent of common diseases. However, if it is unable to diagnose, or patients require more information, they can request a consultation with a doctor remotely or in person.
Similarly, in Hong Kong, “Doctor Now” provides a fully-integrated medical concierge solution to patients through a single easy-to-use online platform. Doctors are linked up with patients by email, phone, and webcam. They’re also able to consult with each other – sometimes to make split-second decisions on heart attacks and strokes.
Care for long-term conditions
Post-diagnosis, technology is now being used to manage chronic and debilitating conditions. In the United States, Verily, part of Google parent Alphabet Inc., has developed smart Liftware Level handles that can be attached to simple cooking or eating utensils and continually adjust their levels to help sufferers from Parkinson’s, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injury, Huntington’s disease or post-stroke deficits.
Another system, developed in the UK by Oxford University’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Drayson Technologies, allows patients suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to monitor their heart rate and blood oxygen saturation from home, which is more cost-effective than hospital admission.
The system uses AI technology which learns the patients’ specific normal range, and then alerts clinicians when the measurements fall below it, allowing patients to remain at home knowing their condition is being continually monitored.
Hospitals at the cutting edge
Within hospitals and clinics in Hong Kong, we are also seeing profound changes thanks to digital technology. Hospitals are using smart chips, radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, and location services to improve communications, flow of patients, staff rostering, equipment usage and supplies logistics.
AI offers the capability to leverage the vast amounts of data collected in the hospital environment to diagnose diseases in their early stage. The British National Health Service (NHS) has begun to use AI extensively, most notably by using big data analysis to analyze individual patient data as well as anonymized patient datasets to assist in early diagnosis of chronic diseases.
It is expected that these services, and new AI applications, will help save 50,000 lives in the UK alone over the next 15 years.
Loneliness is another severe problem for elderly people who become immobile. Companies are working hard to solve their social isolation while monitoring their health using AI. Consequential Robotics, a British start-up, has designed and produced a companion robot dog call MiRo. MiRo comes with sensors enabling it to react to touch. For example, petting MiRo will cause the dog to shake its tail and show expressions of happiness. More importantly, MiRo has the ability to monitor the physical condition of the patient, remind them to take medication at the scheduled time and summon help when needed.
International collaboration is key
Looking after a growing older population is a challenge for governments worldwide but technology and international collaboration present many opportunities to improve the quality of life for the elderly more cost-effectively. It also presents a huge business opportunity. According to consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, the value of medical artificial intelligence market alone will exceed US$1.7 billion this year.
Hong Kong is renowned worldwide for the quality of its medical professionals, as well as being a place where innovative businesses can grow and thrive. By combining the city’s expertise with the innovation that is being developed worldwide, including the UK, there is an opportunity for Hong Kong to support elderly citizens in the way they deserve while also becoming the eHealth innovation hub for Asia.
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