Personalized, computer-based health services are on the way. Recently a new website, called Keas, launched with the backing of Google Health and Microsoft HealthVault. Keas’ online service will enable a person to enter his or her own individual health data, and get recommendations back on self-care matters such as diet and diabetes control. And, in the future, it’s possible that Americans will begin to experiment with robotic care aides for the elderly.
Full disclosure: robotic care aides, as a product, don’t exist quite yet. But eldercare robots are in use in Japan, where high tech companies are working on service robots for a range of applications. And in the US, innovative robotic applications are under development at MIT and other technology incubators.
While Keas, with high interactivity and personalization, might seem the opposite of a robotic caregiver, in fact the ideas two are powerfully related.
A long time coming, both developments mark the beginning of a new age in health care, one in which individuals have sophisticated, computer-based, interactive tools to manage their own health decisions and behavior.
(And with those tools, there will likely be a shift in the doctor-patient relationship, as well.)
Putting cartoon-like images aside, imagine a robotic “nurse” in the home of one’s frail elderly mom or dad, who happens to live, say, in Florida or Arizona, two thousand miles away. Suppose this robot can be programmed to take a pulse, relaying that information to a health provider. On a daily basis, it conducts a “conversation” (registering significant changes in speech patterns, like a new slur), and can record and send the tape in real time to a far-away family member.
Add to that the ability to hand out the correct pills at the correct time, remind mom or dad to make a call (so they stay socially engaged) or switch to a TV channel with an exercise program suited to their age and level.
Plus, this robot could use a high-quality software system to shape standard health messages to one’s circumstances, whether that’s diabetes or heart disease. It could pop up with personalized menu suggestions or food shopping lists.
Of course, personal monitoring devices in our personal lives, and computer-based health information tailored to individual circumstances won’t be an unmitigated good.
The upside is that by using robots frail elderly people can remain in their own homes and remain as independent as possible for as long as possible.
One downside, warns leading British robotic expert Noel Sharkey of the University of Sheffield, is that over-reliance on robots could leave frail elderly people “in the exclusive care of machines without sufficient human contact.” There are no international ethical guidelines for robotic applications.
Another downside is invasion of privacy and erosion of personal boundaries. Given the success in marketing in-home surveillance systems for children (“nanny-cams”), there’s growing interest in marketing “granny-cams” so adult children can “watch” their elderly aging relatives. Clearly, not all senior citizens want to be observed in this way.
Keas markets its new service and individualized health plans saying that they offer people information on how to “manage or improve a condition; others might use quizzes or ask you for lab results to deliver personalized content and action items to help you improve your health.” Their plans “take into account your health conditions, family history, and other information in your Health Profile.”
The company promises maximum privacy, and clearly limits its advice to non-medical issues–both essential disclaimers.
But of course, privacy of medical information and ensuring that health-related recommendations fit one’s own personal circumstances are two important areas for consumer concern.
New technology has a way of opening doors to a future that, while at first unimaginable, subsequently seems mundane. For instance, many users (especially those old enough to remember days of, say, black and white TV) might view the IPhone and Blackberry as primarily telephones with additional functions, notably access to email. Teens view similar products as small portable computers that happen to have a telephone function.
So what’s next in this fast-shifting world of technology as it relates to eldercare? Keas, offering a break-through model of personalized health information, is already launched. Service robots for eldercare with computer-generated personalized health information may not be far behind. Already used in manufacture and industry, robots will likely soon have consumer applications from straightening the bedroom to keeping granny engaged with a hot game of bridge, while offering menu ideas for that 5pm dinner.