It’s not often that technology demos make you choke up, but when Scotte Hudsmith, CEO of healthcare start-up Parental Health, talks about the reasons he founded his company, it’s impossible not to. Hudsmith wanted to give his elderly father a way to manage his increasingly complex health care needs while still remaining independent of his son’s help. But this isn’t just any baby boomer/aging parent tale: Hudsmith’s father, now 87, was in his youth a marine on Iwo Jima.
MISTY is a touch-screen application aimed at helping independent seniors cope with their problems.
That the “Greatest Generation” have now become elderly and frail underscores the need for solutions that allow seniors—and eventually ourselves—to live independently, despite health challenges. “Aging in Place” has become a new mantra, pushed by primarily by two issues: The emotional realization of how grim nursing home living is, and the economic realization that it is far cheaper to care for loved ones in their own home. The latter has been reinforced by the Independence at Home Act, which for the first-time allows Medicare to be used to pay for home-based care, rather than just for far more expensive institutional care.
“[The Act] sets in place a set of reimbursements for physicians and clinicians to deliver care and services to the homes of older people and not require them to come into an institution whether temporarily or permanently,” says Eric Dishman, director of Health Innovation at Intel, “That creates, to a degree, a market for independent-living technologies and remote health management technologies.”
Indeed, the promise of reimbursement, combined with the desperate need for in-home solutions, has inspired technology R&D at corporations like Intel and at a small start-ups like Hudsmith’s Parental Health. “You’re suddenly seeing a growing interest in the ability to do healthcare delivery in the home or the community, because before you would have to do all these obscure, almost tax-code like ways to get Medicare to reimburse for it,” says Dishman. In fact the interest is so intense, Dishman was shocked by the turn-out at a healthcare conference he keynoted.
As you may imagine, the American Academy of Homecare Physicians doesn’t usually attract an SRO crowd, since there are so few doctors left who make housecalls. Yet this year, according to Dishman, “They had to literally tear down the walls of the conference.” The biggest sign of change: “I took home business cards from seven different hedge fund and VC capital managers. It was an indicator that the marketplace is changing as a result of health reform,” says Dishman.
Existing healthcare providers, such as hospitals and HMOs, are also behind the trend, says Dishman. “Increasingly, when you do that math, you figure out that the only way that you can achieve those cost goals that maintain your quality is to deliver services in the home and in the community.”
But it isn’t just capitalism or idealism that inspires those in this field—it’s pragmatism.
Many of us, accustomed to moving for work or school, take living thousands of miles away from our families for granted. At certain phases of life, that’s not only not a problem; it may even be an advantage. But as family members age, distances seem to grow. While both parents and adult children would like to live closer, there’s often a stalemate: Neither side wants to move away from friends and familiar surroundings.
According to people like Dishman and Hudsmith, the solution is obvious: technological innovation. “[Our product] lets people move digitally back in with their families,” says Hudsmith.
“My Dad was balancing 12 different point solutions to monitor his health. It just didn’t make sense,” says Hudsmith. To help his father and others like him to take charge of their own health, Hudsmith and his team developed software with a friendly interface that runs on HP’s TouchSmart tablets and other touchscreen devices. So friendly, in fact, it’s named MISTY (Medical Information Systems To You). Hudsmith envisions MISTY not merely as a healthcare tool, but a “life management” system.
MISTY’s home screen is a good example of the simple interfaces enabled by touch screens. It has nine large icons (2.5 inches by 2.5 inches), lined up in three rows.
With one touch, users can connect to anything from their regular doctors to 911 to grocery delivery. “User” in this case could mean a senior who’s living independently or the caretaker for a young person with a debilitating illness. “It’s designed to help both seniors to age in place and to allow anyone of whatever age to manage multiple chronic conditions that require monitoring or maintenance,” explains Hudsmith.
Through open APIs, MISTY connects to various health-monitoring devices, such as blood pressure cuffs and glucometers, using (as appropriate), Bluetooth, RFID, or USB. Most importantly, on the back-end, it connects to the user’s healthcare team. The team can remotely monitor patients and their records 24/7. Red, yellow, and green signals alert the team to a patient’s status.
Here’s a typical example of MISTY in action: One of the icons is the “pillbox.” Suppose a person is on a prescription medication that must be taken by 9:00am every morning. Either the person or her caregiver records in the pillbox that the medicine was taken. If someone records that a dose was missed, the system prompts for an explanation. The medical team immediately discovers that Mr. Smith didn’t check in for his 9:00am pill or that Mrs. Jones did check in but said the pills make her nauseous. We’re a long way from “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”
MISTY isn’t simply about maintaining physical health or connecting to community services. Hudsmith has never heard about Iwo Jima directly from his father; “He doesn’t talk about those years,” says Hudsmith. His father’s reticence to talk about his war experiences inspired “Family Legacy,” a MISTY segment where family members can record for their families, or even for library archives and classrooms, a lifetime’s worth of anecdotes and memories, some of which may be to painful to confide in person. “If they don’t feel comfortable talking directly, they could talk to the computer,” says Hudsmith.
It may be a perfect piece of irony. It’s often the older generation who complain about technology keeping us from talking to each other face-to-face. Yet in the end, it may be technology that allows us to finally hear from them what matters most.