Robots, VR and Remote Monitoring: a Primer on Health Tech Innovation for Seniors
March 22, 2021
Over the last few years there has been quiet but substantial growth in the sub-sector of health tech targeted to older audiences. The grouping of technologies falls into a few different categories commonly known to all age groups like wearables, digital therapeutics, smart living tech, and remote care, but is commonly known as the ‘Aging in Place’ industry. These are technologies that mostly aim to extend, in years, the time that older populations can live independently. The economics of healthcare makes clear why start ups and establishing technology firms are investing heavily in this area. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, healthcare spending per capita on those over the age of 65 is five times higher than spending per child and three times higher than spending on the average working-age person. 56% of all healthcare spending in the United States is from people 55 and older, while they make up roughly 29% of the population, according to the same KFF study. It is a massive chunk of the economy and we are starting to see real solutions come to fruition that hold at least the promise of flattening the age-related spending curve.
CES, the annual emporium of the latest and nascent in consumer technology, is a good barometer of the level of focus on aging in place solutions. My unofficial count of health-focused presenters who have developed solutions and/or specialize in aging in place is about 40-50%. All of the companies I reviewed share the baseline level of understanding that their end customer is not a digital native. In a lot of cases their audiences have gone half their lives or more without the kind of technical interconnectivity we now take for granted. As such, innovators in the space are designing solutions with low barriers of entry and extreme ease of use. In our desire for more technological solutions to everyday problems we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we still have a significant population of people who are not digitally savvy.
These are a few high-level groupings of innovations that are particularly noteworthy now and will surely grow in importance over the next few years.
• Robots – Intuition Robotics has developed a sidekick robot called ElliQ which in a lot of ways is similar to voice assistants but has the added benefit of situational context and can offer suggestions or helpful insights at different times of day, becoming a more active participant in a person’s life. Ageless Innovation has developed robotic companion pets that give owners an empathetic partner that requires minimal work. These are just two illustrative examples of innovations in robotics that make staying home easier while also solving atomized life. Companionship is a key component of mental and physical health, and robotics is one area that is aggressively addressing that problem.
• Remote Monitoring – We have come a long way from wearable buttons used to call healthcare professionals in the case of falls or emergencies. I have vivid memories of daytime commercials selling those products to seniors. Vital Tech, for example, works with health systems to scale its home monitoring platform which continuously evaluates vital signs, can predict issues, and can be accessed by patients, caregivers, and healthcare professionals. It has significantly decreased hospital re-admission rates. Care Predict is a similar technology, but instead of partnering with health systems they sell directly to consumers and their caregivers. Their wearable device can track small changes in behavior and initiate appropriate action. We can also add digital pill dispensers like Hero, Medacube, and others that regulate and automate pill dispensing to ensure patients are staying compliant with their medicinal regiments. Both macro-level remote monitoring systems and more specific systems like pill trackers represent probably the largest share of the aging in place sector. In most cases companies in the space are taking mature technologies and applying them to senior-specific use cases.
• Virtual Reality – VR has not had the kind of widespread adoption that many have expected since its introduction into the public consciousness. Nevertheless, it is being applied in the aging in place sector and delivering promising results. Embodied Labs uses VR to enable caregivers and healthcare professionals to see the world through the eyes of an elderly person. It is a training device developed to increase the quality of care. It allows for more empathy and understanding among those who regularly interact with seniors.
• New Uses of Existing Tech – It’s obvious but worth noting that general consumer health tech also has applications for senior audiences. Virtual assistants, wearable health trackers, and digital therapeutics can all provide substantial benefits to seniors and we should be thinking of them as viable tools to solve the kinds of problems illustrated in the prior three groupings.
So what does this all mean for marketing and media professionals?
The first and most important takeaway is how these technologies will impact our notions of the patient journey. The general healthcare delivery process for seniors has been mostly unchanged for many years, even in the face of significant change for other cohorts. But as argued here there are emerging technologies that will change that. It forces marketers to think differently about the progression of steps a customer goes through and the information they will need to be exposed to at those steps. That will impact segmentation and the data we use to infer or definitively determine where a customer is in their consideration process. The second important takeaway is that healthcare brands should explore this space and start working with organizations in this sector to develop communication solutions that can be paired with their products.