For three months early this year, 63-year-old Ronald Lang was one of the most plugged-in patients in America. Lang, who suffers from congestive heart failure and multiple sclerosis, was pilot-testing the Intel Health Guide, a device that let doctors monitor his health remotely. Each day after he woke up, he'd step on a scale and strap on a blood-pressure cuff that were attached to the Health Guide. The device collected his vitals and zapped them to his doctor's office. From there, nurse Marie DiCola scoured the data, and if she noticed anything amiss, she dialed up Lang and chatted with him over Health Guide's videophone.
Health Guide is at the leading edge of a new technology trend called "aging in place" that's designed to help seniors stay longer where they're most comfortable—at home—rather than having to move into nursing or assisted-living facilities. Aging-in-place equipment is placed in a person's home, monitors symptoms on the spot, and sends reports to doctors and family members in real time. Companies developing these products, just now being deployed by a handful of health plans and home care agencies, believe aging-in-place tech can drastically cut the rate of medical complications that force seniors into hospitals and other intensive-care facilities. That, in turn, could shave millions of dollars a year from U.S. health-care bills—a tantalizing proposition at a time when health reform is at the top of the political agenda.
As 77 million baby boomers race towards their golden years, the world's leading technology innovators are building this new market with a range of futuristic gizmos. There are beds that can monitor patients' vital signs as they sleep, stoves that can turn themselves off when their owners forget, and video games that can detect early signs of dementia. Besides Intel, the aging-in-place market has attracted the likes of General Electric (GE), Philips Electronics, Honeywell, (HON), Bosch, and dozens of technology startups.
The overall market for technology to assist older patients is expected to grow to $20 billion by 2020, according to consultancy Aging in Place Technology Watch.
Health Guide epitomizes the kinds of in-home gear that can reduce the hassle factor for clinicians and patients, especially those dealing with chronic but easy-to-monitor diseases. Heart failure patients, for example, must measure their weight and blood pressure frequently, because changes in either metric can signal the type of trouble that requires emergency intervention. But distinguishing between a minor setback and a serious situation depends on being able to figure out how the patient is feeling. DiCola was able to assess symptoms both by talking to patients and examining them visually. She downloaded real-time data for as many as 25 patients every day, and spoke to many using Health Guide's videophone. "I could make decisions about treatment," she says. "If they needed to see the doctor, I got them into cardiology right away."
For patients like Lang, who often didn't need to see the doctor, the desktop access to DiCola was comforting. "I used to have to get dressed, go to the doctor's office, wait, and pay my $10—just for them to take my blood pressure," Lang says. "Then the doctor would say: 'Everything is fine. Take your medicine.'" Health Guide let Lang to do all of that from his living room.
Executives at Intel envision a whole suite of products that can give any house the characteristics of an assisted-living facility, but without any of the sterile, impersonal environment that seniors despise.