In four years time, we’ll hit the futuristic marker, 2020. Telepresence robots that remind us to take our medication will live in our homes. An automated car will drive us to the shops if we lose our cognition. And doctors will appear as talking heads in our lounge room, via the wonders of medical video consultations.
This sci-fi future is real. It’s so real that if you’ve got the money, are involved in a technology trial or work in a research lab, you’ll already be experiencing it. But in four years time, as these innovations move out of development, increase in production and fall in price, they’ll be cheaper to purchase. And once governments and private health insurers start slowly but increasingly funding such an integrated future, these technologies will most likely move into your home.
Dr George Margelis, Health and Life Science Lead (Australia and New Zealand) at Intel predicts that in 2020 we’ll all live in a ‘connected’ home, featuring a range of smart health innovations, which will speak to each other and us.
“We used to believe that in 2020, there’d be a robot with legs that would come and serve you a cup of tea,” says Dr Margelis. “But you’ll literally have 50 devices in your house, each focused on specific tasks that automate, deliver data and solve multiple problems.”
Your home health hub will feature the standard technologies available now – innovations that measure blood glucose levels, heart rate, blood pressure and more – but the key enabler of home healthcare will be cheap video conferencing equipment that everyone can afford.
"We’ve even tested driving ability before and after playing Xbox, and it does improve an elderly person’s ability to drive."
“Using simple video conferencing, you could report on your pain to the hospital on a regular basis: not once a week but more than once a day,” says Margelis. “Then the nurse can intervene immediately if the pain medication is not right and advise the patient what to do over video.”
Dr Amir Talaei-Khoei is a lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney’s (UTS) School of Systems, Management and Leadership. He is currently researching how off-the-shelf X-Box games – everything from memory performance to exercise games – can be played at home to improve your health and promote independence among the aged.
“We’ve even tested driving ability before and after playing Xbox,” says Dr Amir Talaei-Khoei. “And it does improve an elderly person’s ability to drive.
“Most of the time, we don’t need to develop something new, if there’s an innovation that’s already available that we can use for a different purpose.”
Principal Research Fellow at the UTS’s Faculty of Health, Associate Professor Sally Inglis, says researchers across the globe are also investigating implanted devices, like defibrillators that wirelessly tell your health professional of a health issue in real-time.
By 2020, she says, Australia will hopefully follow international examples and give cardiac patients their own set of electronic scales that alerts their clinician if they have put on weight suddenly due to pulmonary oedema.
“All the patient will have to do is stand on an electronic set of scales every day and the weight measurement will be sent to a monitored database,” says Dr Inglis. “The nurse will find out the person has put on weight and intervene to get the patient to adjust their medication or take other action.”
The difference is in the data
But the real difference between today and 2020 will not be in the gadgets themselves. Dr Margelis says it will be in what these new innovations tell us about our bodies and how we can use this information to change our health.
“We need to move away from thinking these killer gadgets will solve our health problems,” comments Dr Margelis. “The real solution will be in the data they produce.”
For example, he explains, Intel has just released a new 3D camera: the RealSense ZR300. While this unmanned aerial vehicle with human-like senses is impressive, its real value in the future will be in how it works in the health context, once paired with other technologies, apps and programs.
"We’ll also have cheap cameras with tiny sensors that work with other programs to rate how healthy the food inside your fridge is and how to improve your diet."
In the UK, this device is currently being used for remote wound care management and can measure everything from the width and depth of a wound to the heat coming from the wound.
“If a patient has a small tablet, they can point it at the wound and get accurate information on the wound that will go to straight to a trained medical professional for feedback.”
Dr Margelis also believes the average Australian will be able to afford ubiquitous sensors, placed in strategic points around our homes to monitor their daily activities. Once analysed, this data will be used to help you improve our lifestyle habits, fix your health problems and prevent adverse accidents.
“Sensors will be used to see how many times grandma opens the fridge door,” he says. “And if grandma is not opening the fridge often, we will ask ‘is she depressed’? Has she has stopped eating?” Action can then be taken by grandma’s health care provider to help prevent her from experiencing hunger or malnutrition.
These sensors can help the 40-year-old businessman how to sleep better and can alert mum when baby awakes at night with a fever. We’ll also have cheap cameras with tiny sensors that work with other programs to rate how healthy the food inside your fridge is and how to improve your diet.
How will we all get access?
The future of home health care sounds so perfect but will it really be accessible to everyone, regardless of means? Vice president of the Australian Medical Association Dr Stephen Parnis says hopefully yes, once we work out a few points: how to cost it, who will pay and how will doctors interact with new technology.
“Everyone, with the occasional exception, can be taught a how to use these machines,” says Dr Parnis. “That’s great but what do you do with the information? How do you use these machines effectively and when is the right circumstance to use them?”
Dr Margelis says despite the many questions there’s an economic argument for all of these technologies to be funded under Medicare.
"There’s no reason why solutions like these shouldn’t be available in Australia in 2020, especially with a universal health care system like Medicare."
Technology may involve an initial outlay but it can save the government money and create efficiencies. And, once government is on board, many of these innovations will change the lives of all Australians, rich and poor.
“Technology is not expensive,” Dr Margelis concludes. “It evolves so rapidly and once technology is standardised across multiple industries, then you can scale up production to enable the industry to grow more effectively.
“There’s no reason why solutions like these shouldn’t be available in Australia in 2020, especially with a universal health care system like Medicare.”
Image of robotic nurse by Pascal (Flickr).