How can technology address the health needs of aging adults? A Medicine X panel offers tips

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Photo courtesy of Medicine X

Older adults aren’t usually the first adopters of new health technologies. But wearable devices and smart phone apps could help this growing population by improving patient-provider relationships, enhancing health literacy, increasing safety and engaging patients in their own health, a panel of speakers at Medicine X said Saturday.

Moderator Frances Patmon, PhD, RN, nurse scientist at Dignity Health, began the discussion by noting, “All our baby boomers are retiring in the next five to 10 years and it’s going to be problematic if we don’t know how to care for these older adults.” She believes that it’s vital to engage and educate older patients and their families and “technology is a great way to engage the older population.”

A major topic of the session was the need to customize technology. Perry Gee, PhD, RN, nurse scientist at Dignity Health, explained that 60 percent of older adults have some kind of functional deficiency, such as impaired vision, hearing, sense of touch or memory function. “We need to consider this when we design,” he said.

Panelist Christopher Snider, Medicine X executive board member, social media strategist at Smart Patients and patient community advocate at Symplur, agreed. Both Snider and his wife live with diabetes. “I’m looking forward to getting old with diabetes with my wife who has diabetes. And our eyes and touch aren’t going to be as reliable,” he said. “Am I going to be able to hear or feel my CGM [continuous glucose monitor] when it alerts me in the middle of the night? Maybe we need an older adult model with improved technology alerts that cause a seismic shift in the house?”

Gee noted that patients need to be part of this design process. “We need to invite older adults, who are struggling, to participate in the design process — bringing them into our design labs.”

In addition to innovative design, the panelists agreed that more training was needed — for patients, families and health-care providers. Michelle Litchman, PhD, nurse practitioner and assistant professor at the University of Utah College of Nursing, explained, “It takes a lot more time to train older adults on technology. Because of dementia, we also need to involve family members and other caregivers. And we have to tailor the training for that person and consider patient safety safeguards.”

Litchman described how technology and training helped her patient Lavon, an 85-year-old woman with Type 1 diabetes and dementia who lives in an assisted-living facility. In the past, home health-care workers came in to give Lavon her insulin, but she still had a lot of glucose variability because she only needed tiny doses of insulin. So Litchman provided her with an insulin pump along with “a ton of training.” The process started with a two-week practice run using a pump dispensing saline, followed by training all of her home health caregivers and family. In the end, Lavon got a more precise dose of insulin and her dizzy episodes were greatly reduced.

Although technology can help older adults remain more independent, Gee noted that the digital divide still exists and is even more pronounced for older adults. “We need to work with people that are 75 years or older who haven’t used technology. We need to bring them to the table and learn from them,” he said.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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