A comprehensive report prepared for the Guardian (Delphine Robineau, 1 Feb 2016) showed the structure of Britain’s public healthcare system and the way resources are split between age groups. In 2016, nearly two-thirds of the NHS budget was spent on people over the age of 65. As people live longer and the fertility rate declines, the number of people in this age group will expand, eventually straining the Treasury’s healthcare budget further.
It’s an issue developed countries across the world are now facing together. From North America to South Korea, the ratio of working age population to retirees and pensioners is expected to decline over the next few decades. Japan probably faces the biggest demographic challenge of all. By 2065, the country is on track to lose a third of its population (Hisakazu Kato, the Japan Times, 5 Sept, 2018). Japanese policymakers and entrepreneurs have now turned their attention to a possible solution - innovative technology.
Automation, robotics and sensor-driven technologies could replace the workers needed in the elder care sector and lower the costs for operators. Both factors could eventually reduce the pressure on government pension and healthcare schemes.
Japanese developers have been working on simple robotic devices that help frail residents get out of their bed and into a bathtub or wheelchair. The Japanese authorities believe these robots will eventually evolve to fill more complex roles in nursing homes across the country. Future robots could help elderly patients take their medicines on time, use the toilet when needed, and even fulfill their need for social interactions (Daniel Hurst in Tokyo, the Guardian, 6 Feb 2018).
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, researchers are trying to use sensors and connected devices to streamline healthcare operations. Research teams led by Diane Cook, Ph.D., of Washington State University and Nirmalya Roy, Ph.D., of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), found ways to retrofit homes with artificial intelligence-powered sensors to recognize behavior patterns such as eating, sleeping, and movement, and then identify any signs of illness or cognitive degeneration and alert caretakers and physicians online. A comprehensive system like this could cost less than $2,500 (£1,975) and allow people to age gracefully in the comfort of their home (Anni Ylagan, Andre Bierzynski, and Shrupti Shah, Deloitte Consulting LLP, 28 July, 2014).
Innovations in self-driving cars, AI-enabled sensors, internet-enabled alert systems, and caregiving robots will eventually fill the gaps in senior care. It’s not difficult to imagine a future where an elderly person can track their own heart rate with a smartwatch, hail a self-driving car to visit their family and use a home monitor to alert loved ones of medical emergencies. Exponential progress in healthcare technology should lower the costs and improve the quality of senior care across the developed world.