David Soto, managing director of Green Access, looks at how the internet of things (IoT) will enable the connected home of the future and empower individuals to take greater control of their health and independence.
When it comes to the care sector, two things are certain. First, the elderly population will continue to grow, as more so-called ‘baby boomers’ retire and advances in healthcare drive longer expectancies. Secondly, the role of the internet of things will become increasingly important, as housing providers come under greater pressure to help this growing population retain their independence in their familiar home environment for as long as possible.
Discussions about the ecosystem of connected devices that makes up the IoT have tended to focus on headline-friendly topics such as driverless cars and fridges that automatically update your online shopping basket when you’re running low on milk. However, with the market for telecare, telehealth and related applications predicted to be £700 million per year by 2018, this is a key area for innovation in developing smarter, connected devices.
Where the IoT has great potential in the care sector is in its ability to deliver unobtrusive, yet supportive monitoring and alerting services that help people to live independently for longer. Analysts Berg Insight estimated that there were almost five million telecare users in the EU and over two million in North America by the end of 2015, with those figures expected to grow by around 40 per cent each year.
Essentially, the same identification, location, sensing and communication abilities that power those driverless cars and intelligent fridges can also enable assisted living, making tasks from climate control to turning on the lights available to everyone. Heating and lighting systems can be unified and managed at the touch of a button on a smartphone or tablet, rather than demanding multiple laborious journeys to the light switches and the boiler.
Telecare systems can even collect and transmit information about a person’s living environment and health profile, making it quick and easy to identify when somebody needs help, but leaving them to live independently when they are able. In turn, these systems simultaneously drive efficiencies for housing providers and improve the quality of life for service users, who can follow their daily routines independently and safely.
Different kinds of efficiency
Looking at the bottom line, there is an obvious financial benefit attached to such telecare systems. The more independently people are able to live, the less time- and cost-intensive support they need. It’s clearly faster and cheaper if an individual can turn on and adjust their heating system themselves, rather than requiring a carer or warden’s assistance.
So far, so straightforward. But efficiency comes in different forms, and telecare systems can enable more than simply ‘doing more with less’. They can also dramatically speed up processes as and when additional support is required, making it more likely for users to receive expert or even emergency support in a timely manner.
For example, IoT-enabled sensors can track the typical patterns by which an individual turns their lights on and off, or runs water from the kitchen or bathroom taps. If these patterns are disrupted (such as no water is run for a set number of hours), then an alert is triggered and the monitoring centre decides on an appropriate response. This is far more efficient than waiting for set ‘visiting hours’.
A smarter, more connected home is also a more efficient home in its own right. With individuals better able to control their environment, they are also more able to consume only the energy they need, and turn off systems when they are not needed.
Making it personal
It’s easy to associate an increasing reliance on automatic sensors and digital technologies with a shift away from personal service, yet in terms of telecare, the opposite is the case. Telecare systems can actually be part of a drive towards more personalisation.
Does a particular individual suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s? Bespoke reminders or alerts for particular tasks can be sent to their phone. Do they have poor eyesight? The apps controlling their home environment can be tailored to offer larger, brighter interfaces.
Each individual receives a truly personalised package of services and options and, of course, these change as that individual’s needs change too. Meanwhile, the data collected by sensors and monitoring systems can be used to analyse behaviour and ensure that each individual is receiving the precise care they need.
Above all, telecare systems focus on fostering greater independence of living which is, in a sense, the most personal, individual-centred approach possible. They enable individuals with even complex care requirements to follow their own daily routines and continue to live in the environment they choose, with independence to maximise quality of life.
David Soto is managing director of Green Access.