Intel's digital health group was created as a P&L center in a 2005 reorganization, so it's hardly surprising that the company is researching health products and services in Europe, where an aging population is one of the biggest challenges facing society.
The question is how to "leverage resources so that more [care] can be delivered by fewer nurses and doctors to more old people," said Niamh Scannell, European research director of Intel's digital health group and director of the Technology Research for Independent Living (TRIL) Center in Dublin, Ireland. TRIL is a multimillion-euro research collaboration between Intel and academic partners at University College Dublin, Trinity College Dublin and the National University of Ireland, Galway.
It is well understood that hospital care is both largely corrective and always expensive, whereas preventive care can often be accomplished at home and can lower the overall cost of caring for the elderly. Effective home care, however, is not yet a straightforward proposition. "There needs to be a continuum of care, and we think that known technologies that we have in ICT [information communications technology] can establish new care delivery methods," said Scannell.
One result of Intel's research is the Health Guide, a dedicated home-use unit that provides patients with personally tailored information and a network link to health care professionals so patients can manage their conditions interactively at home. At present the unit is equipped to monitor three serious conditions: congestive heart failure, chronic constructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and diabetes. "It is end-to-end and can shape what the patient sees, and it helps professionals manage more patients," said Scannell.
Intel's health research is focused on software and services; through TRIL, it's investigating methods for preventing falls, researching cognitive function and assessing the impact of social contact on health.
"Falls are very expensive in the health care system. Often, by the time a patient presents at hospital, it can be too late," Scannell said. Intel is working to devise low-cost means for monitoring gait to allow early diagnosis of problems that can lead to a fall.
Intel also has been running workshops to see how technology can help homebound people combat loneliness. Under a project called Building Bridges, the company created a voice-over-IP unit that creates virtual tea rooms in which otherwise isolated people can interact. "Loneliness has the same impact to aging as smoking does to cancer," said Scannell, illustrating the importance of avoiding isolation.
The VoIP unit is configured for ease of use. The unit has a touchscreen and displays topics of interest, such as local news, before dialing the participants into a group call. It also shows who else is on the system so that someone can dial in for a chat when the mood strikes.
"Older people are not afraid of technology," said Scannell. "They use it all the time in their TVs, washing machines and cars. And more and more, they are using PCs." Rather, she said, "what we have found is that a lot of technology is not designed with older people in mind."
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