Key to funding for eldercare technologies? Pilots

Test programs provide important information as to whether a technology will work and whether people would be willing to pay for it, say panelists.
Written by Dawn Kawamoto, Contributor
SAN FRANCISCO--Fighting the funding battle for eldercare technologies can come via large-scale pilots or highly successful small-scale ones, say health care companies.

No matter the size, a pilot not only serves as a means to vet whether an eldercare technology will work, but it also generates much needed data for insurance companies and government entities to weigh whether they might be willing to pay for such technologies, according to panelists Tuesday at the fourth annual Healthcare Unbound conference.

Northeast Health, an upstate New York health care provider that operates a wide range of services including independent and assisted care for seniors, has conducted several small-scale pilots with IBM, GE Global Research, as well as one on its own.

In one case, Northeast Health conducted a pilot with two patients of an insurance company to prove that remote, or "telehealth," monitoring technology could save the insurance company money.

"We said to one insurance company, 'give us a couple of your most expensive patients, the ones who are always in and out of hospitals,'" said Lisa Gaudet, director of remote care technology and genetic services for Northeast Health. "They told us in one month we saved them $50,000 for one patient and $100,000 in a month for the other one."

Other pilots included a group of 35 participants in 2003 with IBM and the American Society on Aging. The 18-month pilot examined how seniors ages 65 and over used IBM's software to change the way a Web site is viewed, such as its font size, colors, size of the page and other features, Gaudet said.

"If you can't see what you're doing, that makes it difficult," she said. "The goal was to develop software for the visually impaired and increase their independence with using the Web."

Seventy percent of the pilot participants said they would not purchase the technology because its only application would help them improve their eyesight on the Web, while 30 percent indicated they would buy the software, Gaudet said.

Since 2003, Northeast has conducted three pilots with GE, which have ranged from 5 to 15 participants and lasted anywhere from eight months to a year. The health care provider will begin a fourth but unrelated pilot next year, which is expected to last about six months. Northeast is precluded from discussing the details of the pilots because of a nondisclosure agreement, she said.

Front Porch, a California-based organization that operates a network of retirement communities, began a pilot two years ago with Dakim, using its Dakim (m)Power Cognitive Fitness System.

The touch-screen device is designed to improve seniors' cognitive fitness by delivering personalized content that changes based on the fitness of their brain for that particular day.

"We wanted something engaging," said Kari Olson, chief information officer for Front Porch, which wants seniors to engage in cognitive activities on a regular basis because of the long-term benefits.

The pilot initially began with one prototype in 2005, grew to an expanded test of 10 units last fall and is now being tested among 300 Front Porch residents using 26 devices. Plans are in the works to expand the testing to all Front Porch campuses and test a home version, Olson noted.

One lesson the company learned? "You don't call it a computer or technology," said Olson. The seniors "won't touch it."

She advised presenting the technology as something "fun" or beneficial to their health.

Seniors should also be allowed to chime in on how the technology could be improved and other changes that may be needed, Olson said, adding: "Dialogue is key to a pilot's success."

While health care providers may find themselves in awe of the technology, Olson said that's not the end game.

"All this is cool technology, but it's not the point. It's the culture, people and support process you need to look at that," she said.

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