COVID-19 SPECIAL

Pandemic driving adoption of health tech for the elderly

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, older adults in Singapore faced many challenges, including isolation and loneliness, mobility and movement, and care coordination. All of these challenges have been amplified by the pandemic and circuit breaker restrictions. The silver lining of Covid-19 for Singapore's elderly population is that now everyone faces these same challenges and is working together to find solutions that will outlast the pandemic.

Accelerating tech adoption

The circuit breaker period highlighted the importance of adapting to new technologies in order to connect with family, friends and colleagues. Recognising these needs and challenges, the Singapore Government set up a high-level Ministerial Committee for Digital Transformation to accelerate Singapore's adoption of digital technologies that support how people work, live and play. Technological literacy and acceptance have grown exponentially among all parts of society, even among the elderly. These interactions can be key to staving off anxiety and depression, which can be caused by isolation at home.

The rise of telemedicine

One positive improvement brought about by the circuit breaker measures has been the growth of options in and acceleration of adoption of essential home-based telehealth and telemedicine services. From general check-ups to ongoing monitoring, digital technologies that enable home-based health services will constitute an important pillar in a society's ability to protect and serve vulnerable residents. These have enabled personalised health services to be remotely delivered to people no matter their location - a safer and more comfortable option for many people. Telehealth technologies enable physicians, patients and families to remain connected, informed and educated without undue risks. They allow for more frequent and flexible interactions, minimising potentially long waiting periods outside of one's home, which can be particularly helpful to those who are frail and vulnerable.

The pandemic has been a catalyst for the growth of recent telehealth and telemedicine technologies. Institutions across various industries and sectors are working on solutions to improve patient experience and deliver more personalised care, even those companies not traditionally associated with healthcare.

From industry giants J.P. Morgan, Berkshire Hathaway and Amazon's joint healthcare venture Haven to local university Nanyang Technological University's Ageing Research Institute for Society and Education's (Arise) annual Industry and Community Engagement Event, people everywhere are finding value in solutions that provide immediate care. Arise's event last year, which was titled Gerontechnology In Singapore: Research And Practice, showcased student and faculty projects serving home-based adults. Recommendations included a whole-of-society collaboration to reverse the negative implications of the "silver tsunami", and turn them into golden opportunities as societies look into innovative services enabled by technologies geared towards the healthy longevity of all citizens.

The solution for Singapore's elderly: Creating a virtual village

Improving the ageing experience for older adults and capturing the social and economic benefits of the longevity economy will require society-wide transformations at every level; it will take a village to care for our elderly. But now, it can be a virtual village. Accelerating home-based health services delivered through new and innovative digital technologies would support the transformations needed to care for older adults at home and create market incentives to develop and deploy such technologies.

Two underlying cultural factors in Asia help accelerate the delivery and adoption of these new home-based services. First, the primacy of the family unit, especially children, in supporting older adults provides the impetus for technological adoption. Families provide the initial push to adopt digital tools and to teach the older adults how to use them. As more children find themselves physically distanced from parents, such technologies allow them to stay connected with their parents, provide care for them and monitor their well-being. Second, the desire for older adults to "age in place", in their homes and communities they are comfortable with, encourages both acceptance and adoption of technologies that bring health services to them, and incentivises companies to find ways to deliver solutions to older adults where they want to be.

For societies experiencing rapid population ageing, such as Singapore, personalised and home-based care built on digital technologies ensures older adults remain connected and protected. If this pandemic has shown older adults anything, it is that minimising their public exposure, especially in crowded urban cities, helps protect them against disease transmission and that home-based services provide the answers for their needs. Gone will be the trips to clinics, hospitals and waiting rooms. Instead, digitally enabled, home-based healthcare will be the new norm.

This period offers an opportune moment for governments, healthcare institutions and companies to accelerate education, awareness and buy-in from older adults and their families. Conditioning them to use these solutions during a pandemic would help translate these behaviours into long-term lifestyle choices and would ensure that these solutions outlast the pandemic.

Laura Deal Lacey serves on the advisory board of the Ageing Research Institute for Society and Education at Nanyang Technological University and is the executive director of the Milken Institute Asia.

Theng Yin Leng is executive director at the Ageing Research Institute for Society and Education, associate provost of faculty affairs and professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University.