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posted: 2/7/2014 1:00 AM

Homes can create high-tech safety net for elderly

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By Hayley Tsukayama
The Washington Post

As more baby boomers enter retirement, many may see their homes get a high-tech makeover.

Their medicine bottles will alert their doctors when they miss a dose. Pressure-sensing floor mats can sense when they have fallen or let caregivers know when a patient has not showered for a while. Sensors that customers wear on their bodies can detect whether they are moving in a manner that would indicate they have taken a spill.

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The aim of these high-tech upgrades is to allow an aging population to stay in their homes -- and independent -- longer.

The market is small but could explode as more people enter retirement, analysts said. The devices could provide independence to some elderly people, but they also pose familiar questions about how to best ensure privacy is protected.

The devices often mean adding "sensor platforms in what have traditionally been protected spaces -- your home, your office," said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Even something like a temperature sensor can be revealing. It can easily tell if you're home."

The effort also pushes "telemedicine," including videoconferencing with one's doctor, into a more intimate space.

Receiving such data from a patient can make it easier for doctors to monitor their health, said David Lindeman, a gerontologist and director of the Center for Technology and Aging. Also, he said, monitoring people while they are in their natural environment rather than a clinical setting can also lead to more accurate diagnoses.

For some attempting to delay life in a nursing home, the connectivity can be critical, industry officials say.

MobileHelp's alert and fall notification devices work inside and outside the home, giving customers a way to report emergencies no matter where they are. One customer said the device helped alleviate her fear of walking to her mailbox alone, said Robert Flippo, chief executive of MobileHelp.

"She'd literally sit at the window and watch for when someone walked by so she wouldn't be alone when she went to check her mail," he said.

Qualcomm, which offers a medical-connected home service called HealthyCircles, showed off the possibility of the smart home on the showroom floor at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas recently.

Using a central receiver, Qualcomm says, it pulls data from a variety of tools patients use to monitor their health -- smart scales, connected blood pressure monitors and glucose readers, for example -- into a central location so the information can be analyzed at a glance. A patient portal, which users can pull up on their iPhone, iPad or Android devices, lets them easily report the effects of new medication and share small updates with their doctors, family members or other caretakers, Qualcomm says.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which was one of the first in the country to roll out a broad tele-health program that used videoconferencing and smart monitors, has seen a dramatic improvement since it was launched in 2003. Adam Darkins, a physician and national coordinator of VA's tele-health program, said the program has reduced days spent in the hospital by 59 percent and hospital admissions by 35 percent for veterans of all ages across the country.

For every patient VA manages with the program, he said, the organization saves $2,000 per year in costs, even when factoring in the cost of the program itself. Those savings come in part from being able to use tele-health to cut down on the time patients spend in the hospital and funds spent on crisis care and to also increase the efficiency of each visit. And the benefit for patients -- particularly for veterans who are often deeply attached to their hometowns -- is clear, Darkins said.

But widespread use of such technology can raise questions about whether patient's personal details are being properly protected. More companies that have not traditionally dealt with health information are entering the market, said Hall, of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

It is also unclear how data-breach, security and other laws apply to the growing ecosystem of new devices or how companies will set their own standards to protect the influx of data. "There are best practices we'd like to see," Hall said.

Qualcomm and Honeywell, which offers the HomMed patient monitoring service, say their products comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act's privacy and security protocols so a hacker cannot tap into confidential records.

"No devices are inherently HIPAA compliant," said Stacey Force, a HomMed spokeswoman. "But the process by which you use that device, the way we handle our patient information and all the security levels that we've wrapped around the software are some of the components that help with that compliance."

And then there are the devices themselves. The Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project reported in October that while 35 percent of Americans have tablet computers, only 16 percent of those 65 and older own that kind of technology.

A lot of thought, then, must go into designing products that do not intimidate seniors, said Bill Novelli, a professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business who works with an aging-issues center operated by the electronics company Philips.

Flippo, of MobileHelp, said that for some of his older customers, it's easy to get overwhelmed by even simple, one-button technology.

"We've had customers that have opened our box, seen that it has three pieces and then send it back," he said. "That's how sensitive they are to this."

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