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Smart homes ‘could save billions per year on care’

09/02/18

Institution of Mechanical Engineers calls for Department of Health investment in healthy living technology programmes

‘Smart homes’ equipped with assistive technology could save the care system billions of pounds per year, but it needs proactive action by the Government to get more built, according to the Institution of Mechanical of Engineers.

It has made the assertion in a report, Healthy Homes: Accommodating an Ageing Population, that supports the case for using technology such as sensors and alarms to support older people at home rather than in care homes or hospitals.

Frame of house under constructionThe report refers to figures from Age UK showing that it cost an average of £357 per week to support an older person at home, compared with £558 in residential care and £1,925 in an NHS hospital. There were also estimates in the NHS Health Survey for England in 2012 that poor housing costs the NHS £2.5 billion per year across all ages, and the hazards in allowing vulnerable people to stay at home costs £414 million.

A big increase in the number of smart homes – or ‘cognitive houses’ – with devices that would detect problems before they become serious and keep people out of hospital, would make a big contribution to cutting these costs. The IME says that for health and social care combined the savings could amount to more than £2.5 billion per year.

Barriers

It acknowledges the barriers to adopting smart technology, including the cost, worries over security and privacy, and the fact that many older people feel overwhelmed by technology and are reluctant take more into their homes.

But it says the latter could be overcome by discreet devices and equipment, and making the products more appealing to older people should increase demand.

There are also problems in getting construction companies to build the homes, which prompts one of the recommendations of the report: that the Government should create financial incentives to build cognitive houses. While this may come at a cost it would contribute to greater returns in the savings for the care system.

It would be accompanied by a new standard for housing design and construction that lays the ground for cognitive housing.

Another recommendation is that the Department of Health should reassess its framework for personalised health and care and collaborate with academic health science networks in a national programme focused on developing technology to prevent ill health in old age.

The report also says that technology suppliers should be ready to respond to an increase in demand to fit devices to existing homes.

Undoubted need

Dr Helen Meese, lead author of the report and member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “About 7 million UK homes are headed by someone aged over 65 years, who will undoubtedly need some form of assistive technology to help with everyday living, within the coming decade.

“Homes built with older people in mind, as well as retrofit technology for our existing housing stock, could not only allow people to live in their homes for longer, but also massively reduce costs for the NHS and social care system.

“Furthermore, constructing or adapting homes with older people in mind presents a huge opportunity for construction firms and technology manufacturers. Contrary to popular belief, our growing ageing population is becoming more tech savvy and this will only increase in the decades to come. The ‘grey pound’ accounts for over 50% of consumer spending in the UK, which reached £72bn in 2017.

“Yet demand for smart equipment and devices for older people has so far been slow, as many are poorly designed and aesthetically unappealing. Instead of creating products only for older people, manufacturers should focus on creating products that are flexible and span the generations. As a way of encouraging this, manufacturers and construction firms should be required to include older people, such as retired engineers and designers, in product design schemes.”

 Image by Les Chatfield, CC BY 2.0 through flickr

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