Smart Healthcare Trends: Part 1, Automation

Healthcare is going through a revolution at the moment. An increasingly aging population means that the strain on traditional healthcare resources is at boiling point but there is hope. Technological advances mean that healthcare can often be delivered in the home, promoting a more decentralised model and more importantly something that can scale. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division predicts that 25% of the UK population will be aged over 65 by 2035 compared to less than 18% today and this trend isn’t reversing any time soon. I have given this a lot of thought lately and have come to the conclusion that applying todays technology can bring about a sea of change in this industry.

At the same time that people are living longer and dealing with age-related illnesses there has been, and continues to be, a technological revolution. Devices are getting smaller and more powerful, software methodologies are maturing, and the populations adoption of technology is ever increasing. It is now common to see people carry around several devices at once, all of which are more powerful than their predecessors of 20 years ago. Smart phones, tablets, smart watches, fitness trackers, and even smart eyewear to name a few are often part of a person’s regular carry-around items and each are embedded with powerful processing capabilities, sensors, and software. In addition, our surroundings are becoming smarter. From washing machines to coffee-makers, wireless access points to door-bells, each have a part to play in the smart home revolution and each can contribute to making a person’s life better, especially those with healthcare problems.

Over the course of five blog posts I will take a look at a number of existing and emerging technologies that will become increasingly important in tomorrows delivery of healthcare.


The use of automation technology in the home is not new. From humble beginnings in the 1960s as hobbyists attempted to automate simple functionality, the term Smart Home was first coined in 1984 (almost ironic given the content of George Orwell’s novel of the same name) by the American Association of House Builders. Automation has been a key driver of consumer smart device uptake for the home but its use is not as wide-spread as some may have predicted. But, with the advent of low-cost computing platforms such as the Raspberry Pi Zero it is now more likely than ever that Mark Weiser’s vision of “integrating computers seamlessly into the world at large” will be realised. This increase in computing power integrated into today’s ‘dumb’ appliances allows for control of functionality such as lighting, heating, and security among others. In the context of healthcare, this automation can be a key enabler for people with physical and cogitative disabilities or impairments such as those experienced with age. The ability to automate common tasks relieves the burden of being able to operate knobs, switches, and various appliances around the home and can be the difference between a patient receiving care in their own home or in a specialised care setting. Initiatives such as Health Smart Home (HSM) use off-the-shelf, low-cost components to issue warnings to people with physical disabilities, such as visual or hearing impediments, to avoid potential hazards allowing them to stay at home longer. Similarly, using the bluetooth communication protocol can allow people with physical disabilities to control appliances by using only their smart phone or tablet.

The ability to automate and assists tasks such as laundry, bathing, medication reminders, and cooking will become more important as our aging population increases. Being self-sufficient and independent will not just be considered optional, it will be required for non-emergency conditions due to the strain on healthcare and medical services. As life-expectancy increases more elderly and disabled people will rely on technology around the home to assist their daily activities. Assistive technologies like the ones used in the ITEA2/GUARANTEE-project were trialled in Finland for people with intellectual disabilities and it is expected that these kinds of installations will become more widespread in the future.

Automation is particularly powerful when combined with sensor technologies embedded in the environment. Systems such as those produced by Belkin rely heavily on sensors and automation to provide assistive technologies to the elderly and it is likely that automation will be the key driver for technology embedded into tomorrow’s home. This trend can already be seen with housebuilders around the world using automated lighting, heating, and appliance control in their installations. Companies like Barratt of London in their Chandos Way development have added automation technologies as well as extensive Ethernet, wireless, and other network access devices around the home as a precursor to smart use cases.

Apple’s HomeKit and Google’s Home join other independent vendors such as Belkin, Philips, Nest, and Samsung in producing smart, automatable devices and this trend is set to continue as consumers expect to be able to do more remotely and autonomously with their purchases. More recently the cost of these devices has plumetted as companies such as Sonoff have entered the market cutting the price of many smart home components to a third. Research in this area will be spurred on by a need for interoperability. With so many device makers, with their own communications protocols and implementations vying for market share, it is imperative that the industry settles on a set of standards to enable devices to work together. Without this your thermostat will not be able to communicate with your smart radiator valve or heating controller rendering the whole system unusable for its intended use case. It is only when components of the Smart Home work together that some of the more useful use cases become possible. The door lock that can work with an indoor motion tracking device to prevent a dementia sufferer leaving the house or a telephone system that can call for help if a fall is detected in an occupants home is only possible if devices work together so standards need to be defined and agreed upon. Today this is mitigated by home hub software that can talk many different protocols but these platforms have to play catch-up with the devices makers. Research into protocols, especially over wireless networks will provide new and existing homes with a mechanism to fit, and retro-fit capabilities in the Smart Home.

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