Is Long-Term-Care Technology Keeping Pace with Demand?

Article excerpt

The September 2011AARP Bulletin has full-page ads for two brands of neck pendants used to protect against falls: you just press a button, which sends a call to an emergency center that can dispatch someone to your home. These ads have been around for years, but they don't signal any new innovations to help older adults stay mobile and live independently at home.

But Majd Alwan is an optimist. "From a technology standpoint, we've come a long way from 'I've fallen and I can't get up,' " says Alwan, vice president for the Center for Aging Services Technologies at LeadingAge, a trade association for nonprofit assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

Monitoring Every Move-for a Price

There are promising products now slowly entering the commercial market, including a better pendant that measures gait, steadiness and mobility. Its built-in gyroscope is able to sense when your gait becomes erratic, and signals a computer (and eventually your doctor), warning that you are having difficulty walking. Pendants usually come free as part of a monthly service contract, which might cost $25 to $35 per month; the newer gait-measuring version may run $10 more.

Other product development involves sensors that can be installed on your bed, toilet seat, refrigerator door and medicine cabinet. If you get out of bed frequently at night and use the bathroom repeatedly, the computer will alert your doctor to check for a urinary tract infection. If the refrigerator hasn't been opened all day, maybe you are at risk for starvation or dehydration. If you don't go into the medicine cabinet, maybe you skipped your necessary medications.

Sensor prices vary depending upon vendor and system complexity, says Alwan. They start at around $200 to $300 and increase to $2,500 to $3,500. The monthly monitoring fee begins at approximately $40 and goes up to around $150. Several firms deal in this technology, marketing to developers of assisted living apartment facilities and nursing home owners.

Neither Medicare nor Medicaid will pay for these products yet because they are not treatments or services, but are categorized as long-term and supportive care. But the ACA's Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation is supposed to encourage use of such technology and other money-saving approaches.

Alwan says the long-term savings for taxpayers could be promising if the technology becomes widespread among individual users, not just institutions. The technology alerts doctors, nurses and caregivers about activity and behavior patterns. If needed intervention arrives quickly, more people could possibly avert long spells of illness that lead to nursing home stays-where care costs $70,000 a year.

Farther down the product development road are "live shirts," garments that measure blood pressure, respiration, body temperature and other vital signs, and signal a constant data flow; a version already exists for pro athletes. …