GARY DENMAN discusses the emerging role of mobile technology in New Zealand’s aged care sector.

Having entered an era of technological advancement where mobile-based voice and video solutions can now be custom-built to fit the specific needs of any industry sector, available on any device (smartphones, tablets), there is an enormous opportunity to embrace the full range of capabilities this type of technology affords us, and the aged care and retirement industry is no exception.

Within New Zealand, the population aged 65 years and over has increased from 11 per cent of the total population in 1991 to 13 per cent in 2009. It is forecast to reach 21 per cent by 2031. The number of people aged 65 years and over is projected to increase from around 550,000 in 2009 to 1 million in the late 2020s, when they will outnumber children. With figures like these, it’s no surprise that New Zealand’s healthcare system is coming under increased strain. To help address the growing needs of New Zealand’s aged care sector, the Government’s 2013 budget allocated an additional $70 million to be spent on aged care and dementia services over the next four years.

Many New Zealanders also choose to live in rural communities, which brings its own challenges when it comes to ensuring retired, rural New Zealanders have access to world-class aged care services. As the baby boomer generation continues to move toward retirement, aged care providers, and the broader aged care industry as a whole, is increasingly looking at new and innovative technology solutions, such as remote healthcare monitoring and patient consultations via an e-clinic setup, to help achieve industry excellence and best practice in an increasingly competitive and regulated market. Collectively these technology solutions can be categorised under the term ‘telehealth’.

Although telehealth as a concept has permeated the broader healthcare industry in New Zealand for some time, we are seeing increased adoption in the aged care sector. While the definition of telehealth varies greatly depending on its use – diagnostics, on-going patient care, medical training – more broadly, telehealth can be defined as the transfer of electronic medical data (images, sounds, video, records) from one location to another. Telehealth can also be used to support aged care administration as well as increased levels of remote residential care or home care.

Telehealth as a viable solution

The New Zealand Government has committed to accelerating the rollout of Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) to ensure 75 per cent of

New Zealanders have access to high speed broadband by 2019, with health and education the priority. In fact, the Government aims to have UFB access available to all health facilities by 2015. With UFB set to become readily available, the healthcare and aged care industries have been provided with an incentivised programme to drive telehealth adoption; helping it to mature into a viable channel for patient and resident care.

More and more aged care facilities are seeing the true potential of technology such as video collaboration solutions, to help overcome challenges such as large travel distances between healthcare facilities and hospitals; stringent privacy and security requirements to protect patient and resident health information; a shortage of healthcare providers especially in rural areas; and the ever-increasing costs of delivering resident and patient care.

Technological innovation – aged care’s future

On the back of government initiatives such as UFB, we are seeing rapid growth in the convergence of mobile devices, applications, and networks. These developments have driven innovation that otherwise might not have been possible. With its intent to make video collaboration ubiquitous, Polycom has developed enterprise-grade video solutions that are accessible via mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets.

One scenario that demonstrates this involves follow-up care or outpatient care. Patients released from hospital after a specific procedure can receive continued outpatient care by leveraging mobile devices. Bluetooth-enabled ECG devices connected to a tablet device, for example, can transmit data over the internet and subsequently be used for video consultations between doctors and aged care residents. Ultimately this means that doctors can monitor a resident’s recovery remotely. More specifically, they can monitor a resident’s ECG and react immediately if that person’s heart rate or blood pressure begins to drop, by instantly launching an emergency video call with the resident using their smartphone or tablet. Aged care facilities with investments in video collaboration solutions or those with dedicated telehealth suites, have the potential to leverage these types of capabilities, which could potentially save a resident’s life.

Video collaboration technology – hardware and software-based solutions – provides a unique opportunity to overcome many of the challenges facing the aged care industry today. Examples of how it can be used include:

  • Live video collaboration between aged care facilities and community health centres, hospitals, primary care physicians, specialists – even family & friends.
  • Remote consultation/monitoring brings aged care residents or elderly citizens receiving home-care face-to-face with healthcare providers for consultations and prescribe treatments from their home office, or on the road via high-definition video applications.
  • Physicians can provide their expertise from anywhere to deliver specialty services like TeleStroke, TeleMental Health, and Primary Care.
  • Correctional Telehealth helps avoid costly, inconvenient, unnecessary, and risky transports to hospital for elderly patients or residents who are potentially too weak to travel.

Extended network availability and new devices such as personal desktop video, tablets, and healthcare phones means video technology is starting to become incorporated as best practice in many aged care facilities throughout

New Zealand. Inhibitors to wide-scale adoption have been removed through initiatives like the UFB as we soon will have a network infrastructure in place to ensure reliable, fast, and secure access to video-based communications, regardless of the device you are using.

Gary Denman is Managing Director Australia & New Zealand at Polycom.

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