Healthcare IT is NOT Ready for Baby Boomers

Healthcare IT News asks if Healthcare IT is ready for the Baby Boomers. In my opinion, Healthcare IT is in no way, shape or form ready for the Baby Boomers, either today or five years from now.

My grandmother suffers from bad joints and dementia among other issues, and after a recent surgery to repair a broken bone in her knee she has proven unable to work with the physical therapists in the rehab center because of a combination of the poor physical condition she was in at the time she had the surgery and the fact that the pain meds they had her on aggravated her dementia to the point where she couldn’t be reasoned with. The decision to put her in a home was a long time in coming; it’s something my family had been whispering about for several years now, but ultimately it was the right decision.  She is now in a place where she can have the help she needs with daily activities by people who have the training to work with her.

On the heels of this I found an article on Healthcare IT News which asks whether healthcare IT is ready for the Baby Boomers, who are already starting to hit the healthcare system hard, and will continue to do so in ever-greater numbers for the next few decades.  The article focuses mainly on three anticipated healthcare trends related to Baby Boomers, including:

  1. Increasing adoption of remote monitoring systems.
  2. Increased use of information and communication systems which are computer-based, such as object locators and reminder systems.
  3. Employing robots as a support system for the elderly.

The article noted the challenges involved in each of these anticipated trends, and even referred back to Intel’s Eric Dishman’s TED talk from November 2009 Take Healthcare Off The Mainframe.  The article seems to imply that healthcare IT will be ready for the Baby Boomers within the next 5 years, pointing out how fast developments are coming and how quickly they can be upscaled to get into the market.

Now I enjoyed Eric’s Ted Talk…in fact I find it downright inspiring.  But I have to strongly disagree with the author of the Healthcare IT News piece and the survey it was based on.  In my opinion, Healthcare IT is in no way, shape or form ready for the Baby Boomers, either today or five years from now.  There are some pretty big problems with even just the three anticipated market trends they point out, and while the article does pay lip service to them, the reality is that they are far bigger obstacles than they are presented as.

Increasing Adoption of Remote Monitoring Systems – This is a truly brilliant idea.  With the push to have seniors stay in their homes longer (both as a move to improve their overall well-being and as a cost-saving measure for insurance companies and other healthcare payers), remote monitoring systems are vital.  They can detect when a senior has fallen or other potentially life-threatening situations like when a senior with diabetes suffers from low blood sugar; lack of normal movement or activity around the house would trigger an alert to have a caregiver come and check on the patient.  But there are several huge barriers to this that the article only hints at.  One is data privacy, something that telemedicine is currently struggling with.  The most sophisticated of these remote monitoring systems is going to have the ability to transmit your exact location, your daily activities and your health stats, all coded with your PHI, back to the headquarters of the vendor or the medical center.  That’s information you don’t want out there in an easily hackable format like Skype or other non-secured forms of communication.  It turns out that securing the data completely from end to end requires quite an upfront investment on the tech side, an investment that many aren’t willing to make in the pursuit of profit absent any regulation forcing them to do so.  The second area of concern is common to real estate…location location location.  Many of these seniors live in very rural areas…areas where getting access to the kind of internet required to use these devices is nearly impossible.

Increased use of information and communication systems which are computer-based, such as object locators and reminder systems. – This is another great idea, especially for seniors who may be on multiple medications within a day.  Being able to send reminders that they need to take or refill a certain medication would certainly help their health. But in addition to the concerns mentioned above with access to the internet which would potentially run these things, there is the issue of whether or not the seniors would even use them.  Depending on how the technology is designed, seniors may be loath to use it.  Designing tech for seniors presents a usability challenge on a whole other level from just normal users, and if the healthcare IT industry in general is any guide, usability of the software is down at the bottom of the list if it’s even considered at all.

Employing robots as a support system for the elderly. –  We aren’t the only country to propose this idea.  Japan, for instance, is slated to spend money in FY2016 to establish robotics centers to develop robots for exactly this purpose.  But the reality is that even in Japan, where robotics are far more advanced than in the US, they are still years away from being able to develop something usable.  Something like this is impossible in the US without some massive R&D, which requires investment in large amounts.  There doesn’t seem to be a push for that right now in the private sector, at least not people who are willing to do more than pay lip service to it; and government investment is a pipe-dream in this political climate.  Not to mention you also have the idea of whether seniors would even be comfortable with these robots being used for this purpose, and the design challenges that would have to be conquered to get seniors comfortable with the idea of a robot living with them and watching their every move.

I wish I could be as optimistic as the Healthcare IT story, but I truly feel that Healthcare IT is NOT ready for the Baby Boomers, and it won’t be ready in five or even ten years either.  Heck, in many ways it’s still decades behind most of the other industries in the US economy!  It’s got a lot of catch up to do just to get to the starting line, and when it comes to being ready to meet the needs of the Baby Boom generation, time isn’t on their side.

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