12 technological developments in care

Society is changing rapidly and this will affect care. One significant change is the fact that vulnerable elderly people are now living in their homes longer. This means that more complex care will be needed. Fortunately, the technological possibilities that can offer support are increasing daily, but this also raises questions about the future. This article highlights 12 technological developments that are already visible, and will probably be fully integrated in the care industry in 20 years’ time.

1. Everything is connected online

Applications and devices are more and more connected to one another and to the internet. This creates an open system of apps and data. We call this development the Internet of Things (IoT). The possibilities are numerous: varying from receiving information about road conditions, to receiving a signal when the refrigerator is open. It is not unthinkable that soon a sensor in your toothbrush will signal that it’s time to visit the dentist, and automatically schedule an appointment for you. .

Already there is a growing market in self-measurement equipment for sports activities and physical activity patterns (Quantified Self). You can keep track of how much you walk in a day, how many calories you consume, and collect data about your sleep pattern. In fact, these data can be read everywhere. Lifestyle monitoring is already being applied to elderly people living at home independently. A sensor network is then used at current locations in the home to monitor the movement activities of the elderly person and enables care professionals and informal caregivers to intervene when something goes wrong.

2.  Shift to the consumer or do-it-yourself (DIY) market

There is a shift from technology being offered by organisations, to consumer electronics. Citizens can buy technological products themselves and get started without any technical assistance (DIY). Tools to automate your home (domotics) can be found in all kinds of DIY stores and web shops. Think for example of smart lights that you can control remotely with a smartphone. Many new technologies are offered via crowdfunding platforms, such as Kickstarter, targeting citizens willing to finance the developmental stage of new products.

3. Big data

Big data offer solutions to problems that you did not even realise you had. Smart software can recognise patterns and correlations in large amounts of unstructured data. By collecting, combining and analysing data, new improvement and cost-saving insights are found. This phenomenon is often called ‘big data’. Scope and speed are important factors in cultivating data, just as the diversity of information. More and more data are being generated and stored by companies and consumers. Consider, for example, the enormous data yield from using your smartphone: calendar appointments, Word documents, financial transactions, music and video files.

The possibilities seem endless, but there are also dilemmas. How do we ensure that we can use the data we collect in a beneficial manner and still respect people’s privacy? For example, how valuable would it be, say, to be able to predict when Mrs. Smith is probably going to fall? If we knew this in advance, we would be able to take measures in time to prevent it from happening.

4. Artificial intelligence

A development that is associated with big data is the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). In fact, big data and AI cannot exist without each other because AI helps to make those enormous clouds of information productive. We need the help of computer systems or software applications that can reason and solve problems. The term ‘intelligence’ is used because the reasoning of the system is based on the knowledge of human experts. Special algorithms are used to collect and analyse information from the user and to learn from it. Possibilities are increasing for conducting an almost immediate, real-time analysis of information. Moreover, there is often a built-in learning capability in the application, which means that the system becomes smarter as more data are collected. This makes a self-driving car more reliable with every kilometre driven.

AI will be integrated into every app, application and service in the future. Right now, you are probably already interacting with AI without even knowing it. For example, if you watch a series on Netflix, personal suggestions for other series will appear on your screen, or think about personal recommendations on web shops. More and more forms of AI are also used in healthcare. Consider, for example, software that helps to diagnose a certain clinical picture or determines which treatment will be most successful.

5. Risk and safety solutions

Security and privacy have become increasingly important and sensitive topics, partly caused by the rise of IoT, big data and AI. For example, when a device is connected to the internet, there is a chance that it will be hacked. And what do you do when your thermostat, lock or pacemaker is taken over by a hacker?
All that personal information is stored in cyberspace, makes privacy (which some claim to be dead) a very important, and vulnerable theme. What will happen with our information if all those smart devices keep track of our data? Who has access? And when? Maybe we think we do not have anything to hide now, but will we see this differently in ten years!

6. Robots in care

Robots offer many opportunities for care. For example, a robot can support healthcare professionals in their work and encourage clients to move, keep them company or remind them to take their medicine. Moreover, we can make robots smarter and more effective by incorporating AI. But there are also questions about the use of robotics. What about personal contact and safety? And how does the robot’s role fit in with the work of the healthcare professional?

7. Cyborgs

In addition to the rise of robots, we will soon be able to encounter cyborgs on the street or become one ourselves. A cyborg is part human and part machine, and many are already in operation! We, as human beings are increasingly becoming physically enhanced with artificial components that eliminate a certain restriction or make our bodies stronger.

Today, cyborgs are mostly used to resolve medical issues. For example, if your heart is no longer working properly or if you are disabled, you can receive a pacemaker or a prosthesis. Some prostheses can even be controlled by the wearer with his brain. Experts already mention the possibility of our brain being connected to the cloud in the future. Each day seems to present more and more opportunities to tinker with the body and the senses.

8. Drones

Drones are a good solution when you live in a remote area and something needs to be delivered to you quickly. For example, mini planes or helicopters can quickly deliver a defibrillator or medication, making the difference between life and death. The first drone centre has already opened in Denmark, aiming not only for accelerating the drone innovation in Denmark, but also internationally.

9. Augmented reality (AR)

Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mixed reality (MR) are different forms of Reality Technology that can partially submerge the user in a simulated environment. Many people know AR from the Pokémon-GO app. Here, you can still see the ‘real’ people and objects around you, but extra information is added digitally. VR  seeks to create a new, altered reality. By wearing special glasses, you feel as if you are in a different world in which you can look around. In mental health, VR is already being used to help patients overcome their worst fears through exposure therapy. There is also mixed reality (MR), which is somewhere in between AR and VR. You will not experience a complete VR environment, but an interplay between digital objects and physical ones.

Such technologies offer great opportunities for health care. For example, it can help surgeons remotely control surgical robots and use them to enhance teaching methods by offering a more lifelike practical experience to their students.

In addition, there are also holograms. For example, physicians can use holographic projections or 3D images of body parts, to explain conditions to their patients, so they could get a better understanding of the facts and make more informed choices. There is even a virtual operation possible using hologram technology, after which a robot performs the action. In this way a home care employee can provide home care, even if he is not physically present with the client.

10. Blockchain

Some experts say that blockchain will have more impact than the introduction of the internet. Would it really be that way? Blockchain is all about capturing and transferring value online. A blockchain consists of a network of computers, each with a copy of a database that is managed together. This creates a ‘block chain’ that cannot be cracked. That is why blockchain is aptly suited to sharing and storing sensitive information.
It is also interesting for parties who need to cooperate but use different systems. For example, in the Netherlands, for allocating the personal budget (The personal budget gives care clients in the Netherlands a fixed amount of money to purchase professional or non-professional care). Blockchain has the potential to become the leading infrastructure for electronic patient records and personal health records. This could mean that most of the technologies that now act as ‘intermediaries’ will eventually disappear.

11. 3d-printing

3D printing can eliminate the steps in between production, distribution or intermediary trade. In this scenario, more and more products go directly from designer to end-user. In addition, 3D printing promises a future in which everything can be personalised for the end user. With the cost effectiveness that 3D printing offers, companies are better able to adapt products to their customers.
As a result, consumers will no longer have to choose from the same old standardised models, making customisation easy. This applies not only to works of art, toys, building materials, tools and weapons, but also to food, medicines, bones and joints, prostheses and even organs based on their own DNA. Who knows what we will print for ourselves to stay healthy or get better in the future.

12. Biotech

In the coming decades we can also expect a lot from biotechnological research for solving urgent health problems. Biotechnology uses animals, plants, bacteria or other living things for the development of medicines, food or new substances. This ranges from making cheese to growing bacteria that produce vaccines. Biotechnological research could lead to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and the curing of various forms of cancer and heart disease. There are even findings in research that could easily contribute to the prevention of aging. This could significantly change our lives and affect the demand for care and support.

What is important for care organisations?

Although these developments are sometimes already clearly visible in healthcare and society, they are still in their infancy. At the same time, the speed with which some techniques develop is almost paralysing. Because if you do not know what will be different in ten or twenty years from now, how can you prepare for it? Yet, it is also not an option to keep waiting. It is important to be open for innovation, to create room for experiments and to translate those results into vision and policy. An experiment does not have to be an extensive and expensive pilot, a small test of a few weeks can provide significant insight if a test model fits your organisation and healthcare needs.