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Social Care: Using IoT to help the most vulnerable

Social care is essential for a fairer society. Given that sustainability is a key consideration for social care systems around the world, the possibilities Internet of Things (IoT) technology offers to support the most vulnerable members of society is garnering increased attention.

Ageing populations combined with rising levels of chronic disease has put unprecedented pressure on social care systems. As a result, the industry is looking to get smart: integrating IoT services into systems to improve care for patients and become more sustainable.

So what is IoT? Put simply, it’s a network of connected physical devices that collect and exchange data with minimal human intervention. Applied to social care, it allows us to monitor ourselves and our environment in real-time - for example, heart rate, temperature, blood sugar, the list is endless - enabling professionals to decide if any next steps or intervention is needed.

Most critically, it means the appropriate care can be given to the vulnerable exactly when it’s required.

Personalised care

There must be no generic, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to social care. Every person is different, with varying needs, lifestyles, medical conditions that are all subject to change at any given moment. With this in mind, it’s essential to personalise care to meet people’s needs in the best possible way.

Although we rely on qualified practitioners for care and treatment, they often only get a small window of insight into a patient’s current state. Through the IoT and devices such as wearables and sensors, they can track patient’s data in real-time. This means they’re able to understand the full picture of their overall wellbeing and provide the right care solutions at the right time, revolutionising the way some of the most vulnerable members of society are cared for.

Giving the elderly their independence back

Human interaction is invaluable for many elderly people, and carers often become an important part of their social lives. Nevertheless, the goal for many in this age group is to remain independent for as long as possible.

By monitoring environmental factors and taking actions such as altering room temperature, reminding people to take their medication and go for a walk, IoT devices can empower the elderly to take control of their everyday routine. Weight, blood pressure and ECG can also be monitored remotely, allowing problems to be detected early on and in the moment. This technology enables the elderly to make the most of the face-to-face time they have with carers, friends and family.

According the the European Commission’s 2015 Ageing Report, the ratio of working people to inactive others is 4-to-1. By 2060, this is expected to be 2-to-1. It’s clear that a balance needs to be struck between technological solutions and face-to-face care to meet needs, ensuring the elderly get the support they need whilst living life as independently as possible.

The challenge of chronic disease

Management of chronic diseases is another challenge faced by care practitioners. Diabetes is one of the most prevalent chronic conditions, with over 387 million sufferers around the globe. However, diabetes is also one of the easiest conditions to self-manage using IoT devices.

Companies such as Vigihealth have created smart insulin injections that connect to your smartphone, making it easy to self-monitor insulin levels as well as carbohydrates, glucose and activity. These are essential factors for diabetics. By monitoring them closely, more serious complications can be avoided later down the line.

Social care is shifting to become more patient-centric

What’s incredible about this technology is that it puts the people at the very centre of social care. IoT can help the vulnerable build a community of people around them that’s personalised to their exact needs, taking advantage of technology where possible and empowering people to take control of their well-being.

This data accumulated from IoT devices can be shared with medical professionals as well as loved ones, so care can be given by the people who are most needed. The implications for this are striking, demonstrated by the fact that the value of remote monitoring could be as much as $1.1 trillion per year in 2025.

The obstacles we face

One of the biggest challenges in implementing this technology in the provision of health services is standardisation. In my extensive conversations with Jesús Berdun, an expert in the applications of IoT to health and social care and Project Manager at Fundació TICSALUT, it’s become clear how vital standardisation is in health and social care.

As much data is generated outside the hospital - therefore outside of a controlled environment - it can vary drastically. According to Berdun, “Once a standardised framework for the collection and management of this data is established, it will be possible to deploy this technology on a much broader scale.”

Another serious consideration for the implementation of such technologies on a wider scale is that of security and privacy and reliability of information. IoT sensors and wearables collect data that’s patient specific and highly personal, meaning that it needs to be secured appropriately. This challenge requires collaboration from all parties and could prove challenging to implement.

As well as standardisation and security, we’re faced by the issue of change management. While it’s natural that people become accustomed to their ways of working and living, the solution is to demonstrate in no uncertain terms the positive implications IoT has for our most vulnerable members of society and our healthcare systems alike.

The possibilities are endless

The ultimate goal is to provide people with the care they need in the most efficient way, blending human interaction with technology to build their own personalised care system that meets their needs. This has immense possibilities for vulnerable people as well as healthcare systems around the world.

The global IoT healthcare market is forecast to increase over five times by 2020. To put this in perspective, from $32 billion to $163 billion. Implementing innovative solutions will always be a challenge, but with a population that’s growing and adopting new technologies at the rate that it is, it’s time health and social care kept up. 

Roger Bou Garriga, Director, Internet of Things Solutions World Congress 

Image source: Shutterstock/Bakhtiar Zein