Aged Care is a major issue – and ICT is the way to go
“Growing old is not for wimps” – the constant pains of arthritis and degenerative diseases, the extra efforts needed to work around an ageing body’s limitations, deafness and poor eyesight… You have to be tough to be old.
It is even tougher when society sees old people as a liability rather than an asset. When The Department of Health and Ageing contracted COTA to research attitudes they found that, not surprisingly, “older Australians want to be seen as valuable and active citizens”. It is wrong to assume that as soon as people retire they cease to be of economic value – the caring and educational roles played by the elderly make a significant contribution to society.
The survey also found that old people want to remain living independently in their own community for as long as possible, but with easy access to services as needed. When it comes to the growing demands of frail-care, this is a tall order for a nation that already spends around $130 billion a year on health and ageing, according to the Productivity Commission.
The conclusion is that, if healthcare is not to become victim of its own success, it needs to find new ways to increase efficiency and lighten the workload on highly trained staff to reduce risk of error, or even burnout.
In response, a recent report by Accenture, commissioned by the Aged Care Industry IT Council (ACIITC) suggested that the answer: “is not simply more resources, since resources are both scarce and finite. Instead, it is about making greater use of information and communications technology (ICT) to help the entire system deliver high quality and accessible care”.
The many helping hands of ICT
Modern communications are already making life better for the elderly. “Baby boomers” now entering their 70s, have been quicker than previous generations to grasp the opportunities of Skype and social media for keeping in touch with distant grandchildren – not to mention the benefits of mental stimulus provided by the Internet.
But the main issues for government and public health are about increasing service efficiency and reducing risk of error while meeting the pressure of increasing demand for aged care – especially for a connected generation that has learned to demand higher standards of both health and care.
ICT is playing a central role: by connecting and integrating previously autonomous processes to reduce duplication and improve consistency, by helping to manage the data from these diverse sources and by extending medical reach from healthcare centres to the home. The approaches include: “eHealth” systems replacing paper-based health records with electronic data rapidly shared between GPs and specialists. This needs reliable, reasonably fast networking with strong security and privacy guarantees to protect highly personal data. Sharing graphic data, such as high definition MRI scans, greatly increases the bandwidth demand.
“ePrescription” replaces those notoriously illegible doctor’s prescriptions with standardised printed instruction transmitted directly to the pharmacist. Lynden Aged Care’s Melbourne Camberwell facility uses a similar approach to streamline their medication management with mobile terminals that double as phone and pager so the nurses can save at least an hour per medication round, as well as reducing any risk of error.
“TeleHealth” extends the healers’ reach by transmitting health monitoring directly from the distant patient, delivering medical advice electronically to the home, providing sophisticated mobile services that would otherwise require a hospital appointment – even going as far as telesurgery.
Management systems within a facility help clinicians and carers to better integrate planning and keeping track of individuals’ special needs. A big challenge here is to standardise existing services that vary so much in scope and quality.
Information management, data exchange, analytics and reporting are vital for progress in medical research, and for providing reliable and consistent health statistics for government and planning purposes.
An urgent priority
The twentieth century ended as a “young person’s world” where the aged struggled to keep pace with rapid developments and greater mobility in society. But the tide has turned.
The elderly form an increasingly large proportion of voters, they hold a major portion of the nation’s wealth and, as ICT interfaces grow more accessible and less “geeky”, they are learning to make their voices heard and to demand more and better service. As the federal budget approaches, the productivity of the health industry and its ability to serve an ageing population will be high on the agenda.
ICT offers many ways to meet these demands – but does the healthcare sector yet have a sufficiently reliable and powerful networking infrastructure to support these solutions?
That is the immediate challenge.