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Posts Tagged ‘ageing’

Ageing is a natural process. People age as soon as they are conceived. And society, so far, has been able to find a place for each phase of the ageing process: the nursery for the child, the school for the teenager, the working place for the mature person, and the bench in the sun for the older person. The division so far has been neat: child 0-12, teenager 13-19, mature 19-65, older person 66-infinite. And here is the problem: when +65 was more or less a homogeneous group, the last division worked reasonably well. But when the over 65 group keeps expanding its upper limit to higher and higher numbers, say 90 or even 100, who can even think that the 67 and the 95 year old have the same interests and needs?

Society has been able to smooth the transition from teenager to adulthood by providing a system for the teenager to start getting involved in adult activities, be it summer jobs or working grants.

But so far society has been unable to provide such a transition from adulthood to over 65. You reach retirement age and you are finished. No more getting up at 7am, no more chatting with colleagues, no more feeling productive. And all that in 24 hours.

Would it be so difficult to develop a system that allows phasing out retirement according to a person’s needs and expectations?

There are two main drawbacks, in society’s opinion, against keeping older people at work. From the employer’s point of view, older people have accumulated so many perks that they are more expensive than younger ones. There is also a pre-conceived idea about older people and their lower productivity. Productivity is the sum of speed and the lack of errors. By that definition, there is no evidence that an older person is less productive than a younger one. This pre-conceived idea about the lower productivity of older people is being revised (see The Economist: Special Report, “The Economics of longevity“).

The solution to these problems lies with the Regulator. Sensible and flexible labor regulation could easily overcome those drawbacks. What is needed is more political will to design solutions and less dramatization of the supposedly insurmountable problem that ageing is bringing to our society. Let´s get trade unions, business organizations and government to do their job and work together towards making the transition from adulthood to retirement smooth.

Enough is enough! I am not going to feel guilty for being over 65 and planning to live as long as possible and enjoying every minute of it!

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And it looks like we are losing the battle. According to “Healthcare expenditure statistics” from Eurostat, “[The] highest share [of total healthcare expenditure] of current healthcare expenditure [related to preventive care] in 2014 was recorded in Italy and the United Kingdom (both 4.1 %), while at the other end of the range, shares of less than 1.0 % were recorded in Romania (0.8 %) and Cyprus (0.6 %).” At the other end “curative care and rehabilitative care services incurred more than 50.0 % of current healthcare expenditure in the vast majority of EU Member States”

It may be that this is the right balance, but allow me to doubt it. And my doubts grow as I focus on the demographic change taking place in Europe. The baby-boomers are getting older and we are not doing anything about it, despite the fact that it is probably a generation ready to embrace a healthier and more active life than previous older generations.

I have been wondering, since I started working for the healthcare and social sectors, why it is that prevention does not get the attention of our policy makers.

Many explanations come to mind. Of course, simply saying “they are stupid” is the easy one but I refuse to fall for it. I strongly feel that anybody who has attained a position of responsibility may have many faults, but being stupid cannot be one of them; they would never have reached that position of responsibility.

The urgency of solving the immediate problem may be one of the reasons; after all, if somebody has an acute illness something urgent has to be done. It is a plausible explanation but, if that were the case, policy makers would never plan for the future building new roads or housing developments since they would be too busy repairing the existing road network or the old houses in inner cities.

I am afraid that highways are built because they make the news. I am afraid that most of the things that our policy makers do are geared towards a 30 second appearance in prime time national TV news. If that assumption is right, then it is clear that the opening of a new hospital (curative and rehabilitative care) is a better news item than the establishment of a prevention scheme that does not require any new buildings, or any new expensive and photogenic equipment. It requires only brains and hands, probably the least photogenic tools of the healthcare process and, probably too, the most ignored by policy makers.

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I was invited by The Economist to attend their conference on Ageing Societies, held in London (UK) during the 29th and 30th of November. I will not pretend to summarize one and a half days in this short post. I will try, nevertheless, to bring out those three interventions and a message that, to me, were more relevant.

Let´s start with the message. I have been involved with ageing for a long time. My first public intervention was at the London School of Economics in March 2011 although, previously, I attended the AAL Forum at Odense in 2010. Since then I have focused the problem on “older people”. No wonder, since I have worked with several hospitals dedicated to the rehabilitation of older people since 2006. Ten years make a mark on a person. So, the first realization was that at the conference we were not talking about “older people”; we were talking about “Ageing Societies”, which is completely different. The world population is ageing; from Asia to Europe and America and even in Africa. Societies are ageing. The socio-economic infrastructure was designed to care for a nice population pyramid, not for a population cylinder or, even worst, an inverted pyramid. Accordingly, we have to redesign the socio-economic infrastructure in general and the care infrastructure in particular so as to be able to handle an Ageing Society.

John Beard´s presentation (from the WHO) was a masterpiece introducing the importance of health care for the future of our societies. His presentation, based on the “Report on Ageing and Health”, highlighted two important aspects that we tend to forget. One is that older people are diverse. Probably because we are used to giving certain benefits linked to age, for example free entrance to museums or cheaper public transportation for over 65s, we put everybody over 65 into the same category. Of course this is not real and older people have very different functional capabilities. This was the second aspect. The category used to guide our efforts in dealing with an ageing society should be functional capability. The above mentioned report states that “burdens of disability and death arise from age related losses in hearing, seeing and moving, and non-communicable diseases”. So, it is my interpretation that we should move from focusing on age to focusing on those disabilities that hinder our functional capabilities. And it should be noticed that those kinds of disabilities do not come only with old age. They pop up at any time; how many young people need glasses?

It was mentioned by someone during the Focus on Asia interview that “the problem in an ageing society lies with the young people in their 30s”. Natalia Kanem (from the UN Population Fund) expanded on the same idea, and more. She introduced us, through the “The State of World Population 2016”, to the fact that “investing in 10-year-old girls could yield huge demographic dividends”. It all boils down to the same idea: prevention is the key to a successful design of our ageing societies. It is my belief that, unless we invest in our youth now, our societies are not going to be able to cope with the on-going demographic change.

And finally, the last intervention that I would like to bring to you was about breaking silos. When talking about ageing and its related problems, there is a part of society which focusses almost exclusively on social and health factors. There are also other professionals that focus exclusively on economic and financial factors. To my knowledge, very little has been done to bring those two worlds together. And a token sample of that lack is the composition of the speakers in the panel: both of them were from the financial sector with no representative of the other silo: the care sector. Nevertheless, the point was made: silos have to come down and the financial aspects of an ageing society have to be intertwined with the care aspects. So far their courses have run parallel. Now they should start running together.

I could summarize that tackling the problems of our ageing societies needs an intervention in our youth of today, fostering the development of their own functional capabilities in a holistic way, combining the socio-health-financial aspects of every human being.

And this is my summary of one and half days of a very intensive and interesting event.

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Why is it so difficult to convince older people to adopt gadgets and new behavioural patterns that are meant to make their lives healthier and richer? A person who has not ever read will find it difficult to enjoy reading when turning 65. Behaviour is one of the most difficult things to change; ask any smoker or drinker. And it gets more difficult as we age. Habits form our core identity. As we age we tend to rely more and more on our way of doing things and tend to confront any change with the utmost suspicion.

This behavioural inertia is also ingrained in society. Almost every socio-health care system is based on a pattern of attending social and health problems. Care systems are traditionally designed to repair our ailments. If you have a problem we will take care of you. Don´t bother us if you just feel that probably you will have a problem in the near future; we don’t have time for it!

The combination of both behavioural patterns, personal and social, results in a rejection to adopting anything that means to change our old ways. Change then comes forcefully, meaning we have to change because there is no other way. Any change is, then, a public proclamation of some kind of unavoidable evolution in our system. If I am using a walking stick, it means that I am now frail. I am telling everybody that now I am frail, everybody assumes I am going downhill. Outcome: I will not use that dammed walking stick even if I fall!

If walking sticks became fashionable, as they were in the last century, my ailments would be stealthy; I would be using the walking stick just like everybody else, only I really need it.

If care systems insist on putting all their efforts into solving problems – tackling mainly acute problems-, there is no chance that we can incorporate new habits into the population. I know that for years there has been talk about the need to introduce prevention into our care systems. I know also that very little has been done. If you are in doubt, compare the amount that any system is investing in obesity induced illnesses and the amount spent on preventing obesity. I recognize also that the opening of a new acute hospital makes headlines with a nice picture of the Minister of Health, while a program for changing eating habits in children in an out of the way school does not make even a tiny article on page 45 of the local newspaper. Nevertheless, we all know that prevention is the only way to face a brighter future.

Prevention means that, as soon as possible in the person’s life, the system will help to change habits in order to avoid future complications. With that in mind, we will be able to introduce say, healthy eating apps that will be assimilated into our everyday life. The person will rely on the app when feeling at loss for ideas for tomorrow’s lunch. The odd search will become a habit, and the app will start recording what food is chosen, and letting the person know when he/she is eating more meat than necessary.

Compare this process with today’s. Today, I would go to the doctor when I felt sick, he will spot that I am eating a very unhealthy diet and recommend a complete overhaul of my eating habits. He may recommend an app to help me keep track of what I eat. I will struggle to follow the diet and will not use the app. My mind is telling me that I have been eating a lot of meat ever since I was young and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I will keep it that way till the grave, even if it means the grave closes nearer.

I think that the only way to success is to be able to induce a behavioural change in our target population. We know that behavioural changes are easier the younger the person is. We should then aim at incorporating as soon as possible into daily life those elements that will contribute in the future to a longer and healthier life. Get your walking stick today; do not wait for when you really need it. Or in a more up-to-date fashion, start getting acquainted with apps and other ICT gadgets today, before you really need them and feel old and battered.

From the developer/entrepreneur point of view, your customers are the social-health care systems; convince them that only by prevention will they have spare resources to attend the ageing society; change their behavioural pattern from solving acute problems to preventing problems. I know it is a long and burdensome process but it is the only way that your products will make it to the market, to those who need them.

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If the number of projects focusing on eHealth is any indication, the market must be huge. The recently published brochure “Research and Innovation in the field of ICT for Health and Wellbeing: an overview” lists 97 on-going or recently finished projects funded by the European Commission. By this measure eHealth apps should now be treated as an uncountable.

It has been said too many times that the ageing of the population will put an unmanageable strain on the social and healthcare sectors. It is (almost) public knowledge that only home-care delivery can somehow tackle the coming situation. If you still have any doubts, a recent article in The Economist can, in a nutshell, reassure you about the existence of a growing demand.

In order to respond to the challenge posed by the growing demand, we need to change the way care is delivered. Regarding social care, maybe only some small adjustments will be needed but, for healthcare, a drastic reengineering of the process is necessary.

Assessing the market by simply counting the number of prospective clients is not a valuable marketing approach. We already know that the number of older people living alone at home will increase. The problem is not the number of prospective clients. The problem is twofold: a) how can we reach that population? and b) what business model will bring eHealth into public domain?

The business model has to be ingrained within the care process. Unless distance care can deliver standards similar to face to face care, eHealth will remain the poor relative to traditional healthcare. To attain those standards the redesigning of the care process has to accommodate: a) the idiosyncrasies of the care professionals; b) the legal implications of distance care; and last but not least c) the trust of the care recipient.

Once the care process has been reengineered, then we could focus on designing the business model. For that, the main issue is who pays for what. Because today, most systems link care acts and payment, while home delivery is meant to reduce care acts, switching the burden from the care giver to the care receiver. Again, the alternative funding mode, per-capita payment, is directed to a single organization, while eHealth will switch the burden from healthcare to social-care. So the eHealth business model has to take into account that the healthcare giver is more successful when a) the care receiver does more towards his or her wellbeing, and b) social-care organizations are more active. Summing up, designing a business model that rewards the success of the organization by measuring how it activates other entities (care-recipient and/or social-care) is not easy.

If we successfully solve the business model conundrum, reaching out to our primary customers (care recipients) should be a piece of cake. Anybody will be willing to use a system that reduces the burdensome features of face to face care, e.g. time consumed in transportation and waiting to be seen. Anybody, – and the number of bodies is only increasing -, will grasp the advantages of permanent monitoring, easy access to advice and other advantages that eHealth can deliver. The point is, is eHealth ready to deliver?

Going through a check list of the situation today against the bare needs listed above, the answer is an unqualified NO.

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e-Health has been around for a long time; we could even say it is an old feature in today’s world. But yet, who is really using e-Health today? Do you know of a friend, a neighbor, a relative using any of the many gadgets that are part of e-Health? Don’t focus only on the internet, that is not e-Health by itself. The internet provides information, albeit a lot more information than what we used to have at home. Certainly a lot more, and up-to-date, than the classic “Our bodies, ourselves” which probably a lot of my readers haven’t even heard about and that, by the way, has moved to the www.

Let´s go through the process that has brought us to this point in the history of e-Health. The first push came from the R&D organizations. More specifically, the European Commission, through its many R&D programs, has been financing research for years into what we know today as e-Health. Millions of euros have been lavished all over Europe to make e-Health a reality. As always, in the USA the private sector has been the driving force behind this endeavor. The result is a myriad, I could safely say even a milliard, of what is known as Personal Health Systems and other types of gadgets and integrated e-health systems.

The second lever for securing a wide permeability of e-Health is the people, i.e. the patient or the primary user. The use of ICT technology by the population is increasing by leaps and bounds. The older population, probably the strata that could most profit from the use of ICT tools to maintain their living standards, is changing radically. There is very little in common between the older population of today, and the future older population coming out of the baby boomers of the post-war. A recent study in Spain by Fundación Telefónica reveals that the population older than 55, is using internet for productive proposes (e.g. banking or filing taxes) at the same level as the rest of the population. And it is in these population strata in which the use of smartphones applications is having the biggest boost.

The secondary end user, the socio-health professional, is obviously an important lever for spreading the use of ICT socio-health applications. Although maybe a little dated, PwC released a study in 2012 on m-Health concluding that “Healthcare’s strong resistance to change will slow adoption of innovative m-Health”. A closer look at the study reveals that it is the skepticism of the professionals that hinders the extensive use of m-Health in particular and e-Health in general. Because I believe that unless professionals prescribe e-Health gadgets with the same confidence that they prescribe today a medicine or a treatment, e-Health will not take off.

But for that to happen, the fourth lever has to act. This is no other than the socio-health care system; in Europe led by the public sector. It is very telling that while one branch of the public sector is pouring money into R&D, the other branch is simply ignoring the fact that ICT tools could save a lot of money in taking care of the socio and health ailments of the population they are covering. Is it so difficult for the politicians responsible for R&D and those in charge of the socio-health system to talk to each other? Apparently so, but I would appreciate your views on the subject so that among all of us we could find a path to a better and more e-Health world.

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We are familiar with too many good ideas that never make it to the market and less frequently, brilliant marketing strategies selling a flop. A proper balance between the product and the business plan rarely occurs. That is probably why there are few companies like Zara or HM; only the chosen few can find the Holy Grail. But we all struggle to do our best and come up with the right balance that puts our product or services in the right spot in the market. The belief that that is achievable is what bring us together every time there is a gathering like this one. And the reason for this exposition is because we, the partners of AiB, believe that we are on the right track. First, let me go through briefly how the ideas that my colleagues have already explained can become a sellable thing. To start with, you may have gathered already that AiB has two heads, kind of like a Hydra.  The difference is that this one has only two heads, its breath is not poisonous but sweet, and its blood, instead of being deadly, heals. One of the heads of our friendly beast represents a service. AiB has been designed as a care service with the objective of detecting the risk of falls in the individual being cared for by a care service provider. Corresponding to that view, AiB as a service offers a complete software-hardware package that allows the care provider to screen the population under its care for a set of signs that will prompt the system to raise alarms. If this is the case, care professionals will perform a pre-evaluation of the person to double-check if the user should be included in the risk-prevention programme or if this is a false positive. Once the inclusion is decided upon, a multidisciplinary team will perform a complete check-up of the user and decide upon a personalized care plan for the user to follow. The care plan is a comprehensive set of neurological and physical exercises included in the system library, as well as any other action that the care professional decides, such as pharmacological therapy or dietetic recommendations. The system will request certain information by the user, mainly about environmental conditions, and prompt remedial actions to counter its risks. Once the personalized care plan is designed and introduced in the user terminal, the user will be asked to follow it by means of an agenda, reminders and so forth. Continuous follow-up of his or her performance will be recorded by the system, triggering alarms to the care professionals in case of deviation from the care plan or changes in the vital signs of the user. These events will allow the care professional to modify the personalized care plan accordingly. It will be obvious by now that AiB as a service is directed to socio-health organizations that can take advantage of the system to reduce the rate of falls in the population they cover, with a clear saving in the overall cost of care, which I am not going to go into since we all are aware of the cost of a hip replacement, for instance. The second nice head of our Hydra corresponds to the product that we envisage to earmark for the individual. In a nutshell, AiB as a product is a self-contained package for individual use by those concerned with their health, probably because they have already fallen or have seen their relatives fall. So it is for people who are aware of the personal cost of a fall in terms of days and/or health lost. The AiB product comprises a self-evaluation that will prompt a care plan, although obviously not at the level of the service care plan. The care plan includes a set of remedial actions that can be made in the environment, as well as physical and neurological exercises. A system of alarms will suggest the user refer to a care professional when deterioration in the performance of the user is detected. How does this translate into a business model? We have chosen the Business Model Canvas because it is as good or as bad as any other model but has the advantage of being simple and clear cut. I will concentrate on only two of the boxes of our model. First the customer segment, in the Canvas jargon. As you can see, we are targeting two completely different markets:  the professional care market and the individual, with basically the same body of knowledge.  Again our friendly Hydra comes to mind with two heads but only one body, and guarding against the perils of falls instead of the entrance to the Underworld. Second, the key activities. We have discussed a lot among the partners on how to proceed from here. We have been able to produce a thing, system and product for the prevention of falls, without killing each other.  A thing that is the sum of the efforts of very different organizations, from health care, to users, to ICT companies, to process designers, even an economist (myself). The result cannot be broken into parts so that each one takes its bit and markets it independently. So we arrived to a solution that has been in use for many years: the European Economic Interest Grouping. This legal figure is governed under European Community (EC) Council Regulation 2137/85. It allows us to continue collaborating while preserving the individuality of the members and separating the AiB undertaking from the other business of the partners. The use of the EEIG will allow the AiB partners to go on to the next step of industrializing our output. That will be our way forward. I am sorry I could not attend the event in person, but if you have any questions, feel free to ask either my colleagues present or contact me at the e-mail address shown on the screen. Thank you very much for your attention.

You can also whach the presentation at http://youtu.be/QZtK6AyvfN0

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