How technology in the home can improve health and social care

Through the dallas program 170,000 elderly people could use products that help maintain health and independence It was when he heard wheezing on the microphone as he called out the bingo numbers that David Haslam decided to give up cigarettes, but this was unfortunately the first sign of what was to come.

Twenty years later and the 67-year-old Liverpudlian found himself making the journey to his local A&E ward every six to eight weeks in order to deal with the effects of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which left him breathless, tired and constantly coughing.

Eager to find a solution to trekking to the hospital regularly, he was quick to embrace new technology installed in his home that avoids the need for him to travel. Every morning, he checks his blood pressure, weight and oxygen levels in his sitting room using some rudimentary devices like weighing scales and a sensor attached to his finger which then send the details via Wi-Fi to a monitoring centre through a device attached to his TV.

If something is amiss with the readings, either he or a community nurse is called. "I stopped phoning for the ambulance because I knew exactly what my blood and oxygen levels were. I have not been to the A&E for about six months," he said.

Haslam is one of the champions of a new push to show how technology can help in social care under a scheme called dallas – delivering assisted living lifestyles at scale – which was funded by the Technology Strategy Board, the government's innovation arm. Four groups across the UK have been given £25m of government money, with the aim of getting 170,000 people involved by the summer of 2015 in using new, and in some cases very simple, products to help them as they get older.

"A lot of the people don't realise that the technology is there, it has been there for years. People either don't know it exists or don't understand it in the same context as we present it," said Dave Horsfield, who is part of an NHS group to commission health services in Liverpool.

Last year Mi Smarthouse opened in the Museum of Liverpool, which brought together technologies that can be used to help people in the home and show what is available. They include a single cup kettle that avoids the need to pick up a jug full of boiling water to a simple device that can stop flooding the bathroom and costs less than £10.

On a recent visit to London on tour with the Smarthouse, Horsfield showed groups of people around the makeshift home, entering the front door using a handle that locked using a fingerprint scanner, then showing a kitchen with an induction hob (safer to use as they cool down quickly) and a radio with a plastic cover fitted over it so that when the single button is pressed it comes on, avoiding confusion from various dials. While many of the items, like safes for spare keys and the hobs, are readily available, it requires people realising the potential of these gadgets to help their everyday lives before they buy them, he said.

"The technology is there but it should not be a badge of disability, it should not be a badge of needing help. A lot of us use technology as a lifestyle aid and that is the way that technology should be seen, in the background assisting us in everyday life, making life easier generally," said Horsfield.

An example would be the fingerprint scanner for door handles, which would be suitable for someone with Parkinson's disease who may struggle with keys, he said. "How many people would come up and say they knew they could get a fingerprint lock for their front door?"

Lights that come when someone gets out of bed may be relatively simple technology, but for an elderly person from a generation that baulks at the idea of wasting electricity, they may not have thought of them as a way to stop persistent falls, said Horsfield. Simpler devices, such as buttons with pictures on them that emit a prerecorded message such as "cup of tea" can help those who are unable to speak, while a medication dispenser has slots for pills that open at a pre-programmed time.

In the bedroom, an occupancy sensor can tell when you are in bed, and an epilepsy sensor sends an alarm at the first signs of a fit. These can be connected to a central helpline in the home which can alert a call centre, whose staff then call whoever is needed, whether the next door neighbour or the fire brigade.

At the centre of the Smarthouse is the device that has given Haslam such relief in the past few months, the telehealth system attached to the TV that monitors vital signs. The technology can now be prescribed by GPs in the Liverpool area on the NHS, said Horsfield.

Introducing the technologies – some of which can be rented – alleviates pressure on overworked hospitals and saves on future medical bills, he claims. Millions of pounds are spent on dealing with falls every year when ambulance crews pick someone off the ground, with further costs added if the patient is stranded in their home for hours at a time, or require fracture or dehydration treatment.

Dr Maurice Smith, a GP in the Garston district of Liverpool for 22 years, said the technology also gave patients confidence about managing their conditions from home.

He said: "We know in Liverpool that we have a problem with high usage of A&E services [and] emergency admissions. One of the reasons we think is that people wait until they think they are ill enough to need help and people are not always good at deciding when they need help so some people will wait quite late until they ring up.

"By that time it is too late and with the best will in the world, you can't save them from going into hospital and they end up in hospital. We want to be able to put systems in place which will be able to monitor high risk patients and alert before they get to a critical scenario where a hospital admission is not only inevitable but is appropriate."


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