Japan attempts robotics and technology solutions to deal with an aging population.
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When does "New" technology become mainstream?
Buzz in the press is good for all. Articles about using technology to monitor aging parents -- like the most recent two in the Thursday NY Times by Hilary Stout and Eric Taub can be great for the aging tech industry. They generate buzz and interest in the media; they are syndicated and carried throughout the Internet; re-mailed (many times to me); they boost awareness of prospective buyers; and create curiosity and even leads, both of consumer prospects as well as vendors and dealer channels. Given buzz like this, one might think that technologies to help monitor your aging parents will now be well-understood and vendors will have to spend less of their time educating and explaining, and more time just taking orders. We thought that when we read the February, 2009 Times article by John Leland. Meanwhile, Living Independently Group, now part of GE, launched QuietCare in 2003 -- when remote monitoring then really was fairly 'new'. And then again, in September, 2009, in Business Week, when Arlene Weintraub wrote about the business of aging in place. Oh, were it true.
The caveats and conundrums qualify each rendering of buzz. The Hilary Stout article cited several of the almost clichéd concerns expressed by various University research experts: worries about privacy ('big brother is watching you'), false alerting (70-year-old mom was painting the sun room, not having a heart attack), parental resistance to the tech (being bothered by it, or being bothered by their children who want them to use it.) Meanwhile, the Leland article raised cautions about price and lack of reimbursement, whether the technology monitoring would let adult children off the hook for visiting their parents. And in September 2009, Business Week quoted IDC's Scott Lundstrom, vice-president for research at IDC Health Insights: "Right now this is a niche market made up of affluent people who want to monitor their parents. The technology is going nowhere without a reimbursement model that supports it." Yeah, yeah, yeah, but why?
So let's swat our way through the thicket of buzz and caveats. What will make the market for technologies for aging in place, or the inverse, technology to help with caregiving of aging parents, or the market's largely overlapping segment, telehealth, become mainstream enough to be a given, expected to be available, and NOT newsworthy as a 'new' category?
- Wanted, a viable channel strategy. While it is possible that family members may hop onto the Internet and search for a remote monitoring system for their aging parents, more likely a member of the senior value chain (the industry) finds families like those in the Times article through local activities and local contact. Systems need to be installed; high quality service must be provided; products must be leasable and returnable; pricing must enable revenue sharing; products must have easy-to-integrate interfaces -- see more of this very important list provided on this blog by contributing integrator, Susan Estrada from Happy@Home.
- Wanted, insurance reimbursement or viable pricing. Studies continue to launch here there and everywhere to re-prove yet again the benefits of telehealth and remote monitoring of all types. Because insurance companies and government agencies are not yet convinced, even with FCC and FDA enthusiasm, technologies that include or integrate with chronic disease monitoring fall into (or are placed there by vendors, actually) into health, disease management categories that health professionals must quantify financial benefits again and again to convince those who may be perpetually doubtful, possibly due to lack of endorsement. As one research interviewee told me once: a dollar saved in the healthcare industry is a dollar lost by someone." In the absence of this elusive reimbursement, pricing must fit into the budgets of families or those who provide services in order to become mainstream.
- Wanted, a tech-smart senior value chain. Hopefully some of the buzz from the Times caught the ear of what I refer to as the 'senior value chain' -- the multiple and diverse organizations and people who really want to help support aging seniors. These include: caregivers, geriatric care managers, social workers, discharge planners, home care agencies, independent and assisted living providers. Do all members of this chain view staying current and knowledgeable about technology tools as part of their job? Even as aging in place (aka not moving) becomes a near-national mantra among families and seniors, even as home care agency businesses grow at the expense of nursing homes and assisted living, the technology categories described in the Times articles (past and present) are not mainstream among home care agency providers, for example. So families mull over what will be happening in this largely tech-free world on the off-days, and off-hours when aides are not present or don't appear.
- Wanted, the 'right' products and services. So let's say the above 3 issues were all non-issues. We still have no really clear expectations of what we (the senior value chain) want from the products and services themselves. We have phones with no GPS, we have GPS tracking without phones, we have PERS devices that are mobile without fall detection, we have products with fall detection that not mobile-enabled. We have remote monitoring devices that cost hundreds and remote monitoring devices that cost thousands of dollars. We have HIPAA-compliant and FDA-approved, and we have no-and-no to either. We are targeting markets of the still-well-enough to drive, or is it the frail-enough to be home bound? Products can be marketed direct to consumers, or no, should vendors seek distribution? Vendors must decide, channels must be recruited, manufacturing decisions must be made, but this is an industry of uncertainty about the correct strategy -- because the market expectations are not yet 'mainstream'.
The technology isn't really new, but a mature market isn't really here, either. I love buzz -- it is energizing, exciting, and validating for what those who are working hard in this industry -- and it energizes me as well. But a few (how many?) years from now, it would be great to read stories about how adoption of all of the technology categories discussed in the two Times articles last week grew by leaps and bounds, practices are standardized, training of professionals incorporates those practices, senior well-being is clearly better in the study groups versus the control groups, and the young engineering talent of the world recognizes the opportunity to enter this well-established and mainstream market.