The market for wearable health monitoring devices is booming — except among seniors. That’s something we need to fix, because older Americans can benefit from wearable devices as much as, if not more than, younger ones.
One in six consumers currently own and use wearable devices to count their steps, analyze their heart rate, or monitor their stress levels. The use of wearables, though, is skewed towards younger individuals.
One of many stereotypes around aging is that seniors are resistant to new ideas and advances in technology. As a former nurse now working in the health technology sphere, I believe that’s a false perception. In fact, seniors were the first group to adopt wearables. In 1972, gerontologist Andrew Dibner created the Lifeline call button, a wearable emergency response system for seniors. Now called Philips Lifeline, it has been used by millions of older Americans.
Wearables can do far more for the health of older Americans than alert a loved one about a fall. They can help seniors easily view changes in their health patterns and become more empowered advocates for their own health. That can help drive earlier intervention and more proactive health care treatment.
It can also bring valued peace of mind to their caregivers, who also aren’t taking full advantage of the available digital technologies. In a recent AARP survey, only about 8 percent of caregivers reported spending money on remote monitoring devices.
Not all seniors feel comfortable using technology, either because they don’t trust it or don’t understand how to use it. But the senior population is gradually becoming more tech-savvy and integrating technology into its health journey, as those who came of age in the computer era move into their elder years.
Seniors certainly have the desire to reap the benefits of readily available health data. But they aren’t turning that into action. A study published in Journal of the American Medical Association showed that few seniors were using digital health technology despite high ownership of mobile phones and computers. That finding piqued my interest: Why aren’t seniors, who own and use other kinds of technology, using innovations focused on their health?
The study highlights a critical but often-overlooked step when it comes to developing digital health technology: knowing the needs of the intended user. Most connected health devices, including wearables, are usually designed for young users.
Design is a critical factor for wearables for seniors. The needs of this population differ dramatically from those of millennials or middle-aged folks, especially in terms of hearing, vision, and mobility. Design greatly affects a user’s desire to interact with his or her device. A senior with a chronic condition such as arthritis, who may also have limited vision, is unlikely to enjoy and regularly use a small device that has a complicated interface and tiny, hard-to-touch buttons.
The medical alert devices that are currently popular with seniors reflect many of the design factors that are important to older individuals, such as simple interfaces, voice communication capabilities, and automated fall detection technology. As these devices evolve to include voice recognition, video, and predictive analytics, they will become even better suited to the unique needs and uses of seniors.
While better design can make it easier for seniors to use wearable devices, physicians can help promote their adoption, too — and benefit from them. Data captured over a long period of time can let a health care provider see changes and shifts in a person’s actions. Analysis of these data can potentially help avoid major health issues, such as falls, and help stabilize chronic health conditions.
A physician caring for a senior who recently went through hip or knee surgery, for example, could use a wearable to track the patient’s recovery and better understand what he or she needs for rehabilitation.
As seniors become more active participants in their care, wearables open up two-way communication and create opportunities to integrate these devices into health care. Physicians who actively encourage their senior patients to use these devices will have an improved communication channel to understand when a patient’s health may be deteriorating, or when intervention is needed.
Ample research has shown what sorts of devices seniors will gravitate to and use regularly. Devices that easily integrate into seniors’ life can effectively educate them on their health and enable them to be more active in their health and health care decisions. Now it’s time to help seniors adopt these devices.
At least for now, we need to look at delivering technology-driven health care to older Americans as a team sport. It will take collaboration and coordination between seniors, innovators, designers, and caregivers to help seniors use wearables and other health technologies, instead of putting them back in the box to collect dust.
Paul Adams is senior director of product management for Philips Home Monitoring, which offers remote monitoring services for seniors.