“The future of health care is in the home.”
Home-based care operators have been saying and hearing this for years, but the question remains: What does that future look like? And how does the coronavirus possibly reshape that image?
Recently, home-based care models have touted their ability to better deal with the COVID-19 crisis, resulting in more third-party innovators jockeying for attention. As more patients shift toward aging in place, those third-party innovators — the technology companies — want to be there with them.
Without a doubt, the future of the home will be shaped by internet-of-things (IoT) technology, remote patient monitoring, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence (AI).
Within each category is an arms race between technology companies trying to get inside the home. But no matter who wins, the aging-in-place experience is sure to look and feel far different today than it will in five or 10 years — and that could help providers offer better and safer care.
Since a public health emergency was declared by President Donald Trump in mid-March, only a few areas of health care have seen increased investment activity. Two of them are tech-based: telehealth and AI. A third one, mental and behavioral health, can be treated — in part — with technology, some home health insiders believe.
Much of the futuristic chatter about how to innovate care for a booming senior population felt years away. Now, with more people forced to stay home, it seems closer than ever.
The two sides to in-home tech
Broadly, there are two types of tech that home-based care providers and their patients could benefit from.
“[First], there is the medical-grade care, therapeutic monitoring side of the conversation — those are all the technologies that are reaching into the home on behalf of care providers and payers,” Brad Russell, research director at Parks Associates, told Home Health Care News. “And then the other side of it is just those private-pay technologies that are used to keep people safe and comfortable, to monitor activities and to conduct social engagement and socialization.”
Dallas-based Parks Associates is a market research and consulting company. One of its primary focuses is the intersection of health care and tech.
Russell specifically leads research based on that intersection in the home.
“Those are kind of the two different sides,” he said. “The hard health side of [home technology] and then the softer family side.”
That non-medical, socially focused technology category is becoming a more central concern for health care providers, however. As social isolation increases amid the COVID-19 virus, home care providers, in particular, have begun aggressively exploring how to leverage their services to curb it.
Indeed, technology can often play a role in helping in-home care agencies reduce social isolation. It also can give family members further peace of mind when coordinating home health or home care services for a loved one. For example, some concerns can be reduced with cameras that allow family to see who is coming in and out of a senior’s home — and what is happening once that visitor is inside.
Those monitoring systems, usually controlled through a smart speaker like Amazon’s (Nasdaq: AMZN) Alexa, a smartphone or a tablet, also allow seniors to grant access to their home without getting up from their beds or chairs.
Moving forward, such technology will undoubtedly be more widespread in seniors’ homes. In fact, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has even begun authorizing Medicare Advantage (MA) plans to provide tablets or smartphones to patients under a non-health related social needs benefit.
Providers and family members can leverage IoT to keep track of a patient’s daily activities. Two MIT developers recently created a system that can track when and for how long appliances are being used in the home, for example, according to TechCrunch report.
That sort of technology will allow home-based care agencies to keep an eye on activities of daily living (ADLs), which are often a critical part of keeping seniors living independently in the home. Smart stoves or smart faucets can assist seniors, even ones with memory loss, in going about their days with less potential pitfalls.
Additionally, smart technology can keep patients comfortable in their home without in-person guidance, which is especially important while stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines are in place.
“Things like smart thermostats that learn the behavior patterns of the occupant and can keep the home comfortable and manage costs at the same time, [for instance],” Russell said. “They’re far easier to use than old programmable thermostats. They keep the temperature at a safe place and avoid extremes of hot and cold. People have certain health conditions, and there’s often an optimal temperature for them. It can also track things like humidity and indoor air quality.”
IoT can also help identify and mitigate fall risks, another potential way for seniors to be admitted to the hospital.
“We know that a lot of falls for seniors happen in the night when visibility is poor,” Russell said. “They get up and go to the bathroom overnight or go to take care of some other personal need. So smart lighting [would be useful there].”
Assistance from CMS
CMS’s willingness to help with technology access could help accelerate the home settting’s push toward IoT and smart devices.
“We have seen shifts in Medicare reimbursement for remote patient monitoring and preventative care,” Russell said. “Now, there’s some Medicare codes that give some compensation to providers [for this].”
The future of what health care in the home looks like is morphing into the present. If agencies were skeptical about diving head first into the technology before, COVID-19 may strip them of their reservations.
“The impact of COVID-19 on technology adoption is going to be really tremendous,” Russell said. “We’re seeing this in so many areas. People who were reluctant or skeptical are now realizing by utter necessity, that technology has a very definite role to play.”