Yesterday the Mass Technology Leadership Council put on a seminar, Emerging Technologies for the Silver Tsunami: Aging in Place through the use of Integrated Technology. The title referred to the almost universal desire to continue to live independently even as age takes its toll on physical capabilities. The audience were mainly entrepreneurs who hope to cater to this expanding market, while the presenters were current providers who were generously willing to share their experiences. As with everything in healthcare, the opportunities are huge but the pitfalls are numerous, from capability and willingness of the intended customers to use new technology to the ever-present issue of who will pay for it.
The opening speaker was Laurie Orlov, author of Aging in Place Technology Watch who started with some encouraging facts and figures, such as that there are 39 million Americans age 65 or over, 10 million of whom live alone. Also, 25% of families care for someone outside the home and 7 million Americans do so over a long distance. The technology picture is brighter than one might think: 57% of the 65+ population has a cell phone and 31% have broadband. There is also a high awareness and willingness to use various home technologies (chart at right from an AARP study) but Orlov pointed out that these often depend on a relationship with a family member of paid provider. Most public safety agencies are not enthusiastic about receiving automated calls to 911. Most likely, services will be offered on a subscription basis from a variety of overlapping vendors from fields such as health care, security, and home automation. Orlov concluded with the admonition that any vendor should test the usefulness of its offering with the target audience and make it easy to buy, consume, use and get help.That advice led naturally to the next two talks from people who provide services to seniors on a day-to-day basis, Andrea Cohen of HouseWorks and Judy Willett of Beacon Hill Village. They reiterated the importance of talking to seniors and their adult children, keeping products simple and unobtrusive and designing them to be customized as seniors' situations can change quickly.
The second session, moderated by Michael Dempsey, featured four entrepreneurs currently providing services for the aging in place market: David Bernick of Eldersync, Anne Marie Biernacki of AdhereTx, Rob Goudswaard of Philips Home Healthcare Solutions and Liddy Manson of BeClose. While the companies varied in their stage of development - Eldersync is just starting out while the Philips unit is the result of several acquisitions - they all brought a healthy dose of reality to the conversation. For example, in response to my question about what kind of connectivity they assumed in the homes of their clients, Eldersync and AdhereTx are Web portals, which can take advantage of broadband but don't require it. Philips runs all of its services over POTS, while BeClose doesn't assume there will even be a phone line and builds a GSM connection into each of its devices.
Overall, the tone of the session was that we are in the early stages of a huge market (slide from Laurie Orlov at right) - early both because the technology is being developed and because the elderly population is about to grow due to the baby boomers. Also, the business models (e.g. reimbursement) are in a state of flux as we work through the changes of health care reform. However, the usual rules still apply: listen to your customers, start with something simple, and keep in mind how you will get paid.