Japan’s workarounds for adult care shortage: robots, exoskeletons, sensors

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/robear.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]The problem of Japan’s aging population–the oldest worldwide with 32 percent aged 60+ (2013, RFE)–and shortage of care workers has led to a variety of ‘digital health solutions’ in the past few years, some of them smart, many of them gimmicky, expensive, or non-translatable to other cultures. There have been the comfort robot semi-toys (the PARO seal, the Chapit mouse), the humanoid exercise-leading robots (Palro), and IoT gizmos. Smarter are the functional robots which can transfer a patient to/from bed and wheelchair disguised as cuddly bears (Robear, developed by Riken and Sumitomo Riko) and Panasonic’s exoskeletons for lifting assistance.

Japan’s problem: how to support more older adults in homes with increasingly less care staff, and how to pay for it. The Financial Times quotes Japan government statistics that by 2025 there will be 2.5m skilled care workers but 380,000 more are needed. The working age population is shrinking by 1 percent per year and immigration to Japan is near-nonexistent. Japan is looking to technology to do more with fewer people, for instance transferring social contact or hard, dirty work to robots. The very real challenge is to produce and support the devices at a reasonable price for both domestic use and–where the real money is–export. 

The Abe government in 2012 budgeted ¥2.39bn ($21m) for development of nursing care robots, with the Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry tasked to find and subsidize 24 companies–not a lot of money and parceled out thinly. Five years later, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare determined that “deeper work is needed on machinery and software that can either replace human care workers or increase staff efficiency.” Even Panasonic concurred that robots cannot offset the loss of human carers on quality of services. At this point. Japan leads in robots under development with SoftBank’s Pepper and NAO, with Toshiba’s ChihiraAiko ‘geisha robot’ (Guardian) debuting at CES 2015 and Toyota’s ongoing work with their Human Support Robot (HSR)–a moving article on its use with US Army CWO Romy Camargo is here. (attribution correction and addition–Ed.)

The next generation of care aids by now has moved away from comfort pets to sensors and software that anticipate care needs. Projects under development include self-driving toilets (sic) that move to the patient; mattress sensor-supplied AI which can sense toileting needs (DFree) and other bed activity; improved ‘communication robots’ which understand and deploy stored knowledge. Japan’s businesses also realize the huge potential of the $16 trillion China market–if China doesn’t get there first–and other Asian countries such as Thailand, a favored retirement spot for well-off Japanese. In Japanese discussions, ‘aging in place’ seems to be absent as an alternative, perhaps due to small families.

But Japan must move quickly, more so than the leisurely pace so far. Already Thailand is pioneering smart cities with Intel and Dell [TTA 16 Aug 16] and remote patient monitoring with Western companies such as Philips [TTA 30 Aug]. There’s the US and Western Europe, but incumbents are plentiful and the bumpy health tech ride tends not to suit Japanese companies’ deliberate style. Can they seize the day?  Financial Times (PDF here if paywalled) Hat tip to reader Susanne Woodman of BRE (Photo: Robear) 

Intel, Dell develop an IoT “smart city” to support older people in Thailand

Rarely do we hear beyond India and Japan in Asia-Pacific health tech. But here comes Thailand with the Saensuk Smart City developed with prestigious partners Dell and Intel Microelectronic (Thailand)

Saensuk is a Thai municipality with 46,000 registered local residents, 15 percent of whom are 65+, as well as a touristic area around the Bangsaen beach. The Smart City is a three-year public-private partnership with the first aim of supporting older people in their homes through IoT-powered applications including health monitoring (RPM) of vital signs, fall detection, emergency notifications, environmental monitoring and safety tracking.The targeted number for the pilot is between 30 and 150 homes in the initial phase. Residents, for instance, are given a smartwatch that alerts for falls and also conveys information at entry into the program. Intel-based systems from Dell aggregate and analyze the large amounts of health data generated daily.

Visiting nurses, fairly common in Thailand, (more…)

The convergence of health systems with technology (US)

Intermountain Healthcare has been well-known for its proactive approach to healthcare models–it moved early to a fixed-fee integrated delivery system (IDS), helped to pioneer the evidence-based healthcare approach and was an early adopter of EMRs. It was one of the main providers cited in the influential The Innovator’s Prescription written by Clayton Christensen, the late Jerome Grossman, MD and Jason Hwang, MD. It’s now further backing technology development and integration through its new Healthcare Transformation Lab. Founding members Xi3 and Intel, and ‘collaborators’ Dell, CenturyLink, NetApp, and Sotera Wireless are participants in the new 20,000 square foot facility at Intermountain’s lead hospital in Murray, Utah. Some of the prototypes already being readied are the ‘patient room of the future’, 3D printing of medical devices for testing purposes, a watch-form handwashing sensor, a ‘life detector’ for patient vital signs (an outgrowth of ViSi Mobile TTA 23 Aug 12?), a mobile vital signs monitor/data collector for use by helicopter rescue teams, an alert system for at-risk for suicide patients based on increased heart rate, and more. What seems to be missing are innovations related to the specific needs of older, frailer patients. Release. The extensive coverage is indicative of Intermountain’s influence in healthcare far beyond Utah: Healthcare IT News, FierceHealthIT, iHealthBeat, Salt Lake City Tribune. Will other health systems follow in influencing and funding health tech?