Robo Granny to the Rescue

(From China Daily)

Baby boomers wired to their iPads and smart phones are giving US health experts some new ideas about ways to cut the soaring costs of medical care in graying America.

Some of the ideas might sound like “Robo Granny”. An astronautical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made a skin-tight undersuit equipped with sensors that can constantly monitor the vital signs of its elderly wearer and feed the data into a computer that fires off health alerts. It was first designed for a landing on Mars.

There’s also Paro, the robotic seal, which has fur, big eyes and responds to voice commands, a low-cost companion that the AgeLab at MIT is testing to help calm elderly people who have dementia. Then there is the magic carpet with a built-in sensor that monitors a person’s gait to check for the risk of falling.

Other ideas are simpler and already are being tested by governments and private health insurers. Marilyn Yeats, 79, suffers from congestive heart failure and uses a personal healthcare computer, Connect, provided by the health insurer Humana Corp. She calls it “My Little Nurse”, for helping her keep track of her blood pressure, weight, temperature and whether she is taking her medicines on time.

“It rings me up every morning at 10 a.m., and there I am, on my machine, measuring myself, and if I have gained weight, it asks me additional questions. I say it is like having your own nurse come into your house every day,” said the Naples, Florida, resident.
If these programs succeed, home technologies could help slash billions of dollars from the nation’s $2.6 trillion healthcare bill by keeping elderly people in their homes for longer and out of expensive hospitals and nursing homes.

The United States spends far more on healthcare than any other country at 17.9 percent of GDP, compared with the OECD average for advanced countries of 9.5 percent. And yet dollar for dollar, it gets results that are consistently in the bottom third of developed countries, as measured by average health outcomes.
Cutting healthcare costs is essential, if the United States is to tame its $15 trillion government debt load. Medicare, the healthcare program for the elderly, consumes 15 percent of US budget spending. It is the biggest single expense after defense and Social Security.
Medicare costs are growing rapidly as the 79 million baby boomers – roughly equivalent to the entire population of Germany – retire over the next 20 years, threatening to push the US debt load to $25 trillion in a decade.

Left unchanged, the Medicare hospital fund is forecast to go bankrupt by 2024. The ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, which has downgraded the US credit standing, has warned of further action within three years, if the United States and other advanced G20 countries fail to get to grips with the costs of aging. It singled out healthcare as the biggest factor.
The Center for Disease Control in a study last year estimated that fewer emergency hospital stays could save $7 billion annually. One night in an intensive care unit can cost $10,000 and in a nursing home over $200. Staying at home with a health monitor could cost as little as $10.