Beyond a 'market of pilots': EU report on technology for healthy ageing

As the world gets older, faster, and suffers from growing (nay, epidemic) levels of chronic disease and its health and social care systems shudder under the strain people are getting interested in the role that technology might play in lending a helping out. If it sounds like an understatement to say 'getting interested' it is because, to date, a fervent belief in the power of technology, and an unswerving sense that its place in the future is obvious, has not been translated into anything approaching a really successful product. 

Of course it's necessary to define our terms. When I say that nothing commercially or clinically profound has occurred in relation to technology for managing chronic disease I mean to say that there is not yet a telehealth product, or even portfolio of such products that has successfully moved from a pilot to a decent level of implementation in a live healthcare system. 

On the other hand, in as far as technology supports for ageing is concerned the story is somewhat different. Telecare is a pretty big market with some estimating that there are 1.7 million telecare connections in the UK alone – a telecare connection being a home connected, mainly through the plain old telephone systems (POTS) to a call centre that monitors personal alarms, simple environmental sensors etc. The sector has benefit well from various government grants and, in my opinion, the social care sectors willingness to innovate. Something of which the conservative medical profession is rarely accused. 

Across Europe, significant money has been spent on encourage business and academia to explore what is technologically possible. Much of the money has gone into the Ambient Assisted Living joint programme (AAL), a EUR 600 million research and development funding programme involves 23 countries and the EU to improve the quality of life of senior citizens through smart ICT-based solutions. 

I have written a couple of things about this programme in the past (download my paper 'Market of Pilots'.) I have taken the view these programmes may well represent money well spent in terms of academic research and fundamental engineering and computer science advances but taken collectively they are not configured to create products that will scale in the market.  They are an attempt:

to create an AAL market through an industrial-era style science and technology-led innovation model. In this paradigm the objective is on technical innovation and invention and tends to be led, in disciplinary terms, by scientists and engineers is a concerted attempt to include customers from the point of ideation onwards, and to think creatively about the new business models that will be required to see sustained adoption and integration of technologies into the lives of individuals and organisations. In large part, the customer of such technologies in this innovation paradigm is assumed to be care commissioners, public servants, not consumers.

So it is good to see that a review of the AAL JP has been published and that some of my prejudices views have been included in the report. 

  • To maximise the programme’s positive output, the Commission recommends closer and more meaningful involvement of end-users when solutions are being designed. More consistent eligibility and financing rules should also minimise operational hiccups and delays that sometimes affect the smooth progress of projects. The Commission will also work to set up financing arrangements to bridge the gap between the ‘pilot phase’ and large market uptake. This includes further supporting the AAL Investment Forum, and taking into account the possible contribution of the AAL JP to the pilot European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing. 

Of course my own response to all of this is to walk the talk and try to get my own ageing technology / service off the ground. That's something to talk a little bit more about in 2011. I'll keep you all posted.