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George MacGinnis, Healthy Ageing Challenge Director at UKRI

George MacGinnis, Healthy Ageing Challenge Director at UKRI, discusses the many ways in which assistive technologies can support people as they age to have greater independence and a better quality of life, as well as reduce pressure on the NHS and lower costs for individuals.

Too often later life is viewed through the lens of rising demand on health, care, and welfare services; that it is a problem to be solved. When viewed from a different perspective, ageing populations reflect a huge societal success, yet people at 65 can expect to live just half of the remainder of their life without disability. Assistive technology is playing an important part in changing how we make the most of our extra years.

UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI’s) £98 million Healthy Ageing Challenge is inspired by the ambition to enable people to remain active, productive, independent, and socially connected across the generations for longer. It draws on the ‘triple win’ that assistive technologies offer – better quality of life, reduced dependency on the NHS and lower costs for individuals and the public purse.

The last 20 years have seen huge investments in assistive technology – with schemes like the preventative technology grant and Disabled Facilities Grant. This has not always triggered the innovation needed to transform the market, and too often promising ideas have failed to scale.

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But this is changing.

For instance, home automation technology has reached the mass market. Living through the pandemic over the last two years, we have seen a step change in the range and uptake of innovative virtual services supporting people to live independently and manage their medical conditions more effectively. Can these new innovations offer a sustainable solution to make a difference for a growing population of older people? I see three trends that give hope:

  • Inclusive design approaches offer a way to unlock the potential of mass markets
  • A stronger focus on services that deliver complete solutions for what people really want
  • Technologies once considered special are now mainstream, and that is opening up a new the range of assistive technologies

A common observation is that too often assistive technologies are both unattractive and expensive. Inclusive design is an approach aimed at innovating the world around us for maximum benefit by the maximum number of people, including those on the margins through things such as age, ability, and cultural preferences.  This makes commercial sense, bringing in larger markets, and reducing the stigmatisation of ‘ageing specials’. Can this make a difference?

E.oN, the energy company, think so. Their ‘Homes for Living’ Healthy Ageing Trailblazer project is working with partners, like kitchen designer Johnny Grey and ADL Smartcare’s Professor Peter Gore, to introduce attractive adaptations help people remain independent and in their own homes for longer. They are starting to install a range of enhancements, from relatively simple things like a front door grab rail that doubles as an attractive plant pot-holder, through to “4-gen kitchens”, designed to work for multi-generational households where the design works for those with very young children through people needing adaptations to make the kitchen more accessible.

Good inclusive design also works for assistive technology that addresses more complex needs. Centaur Robotics is working with the DesignAge Institute to bring to market a wheelchair that is both fashionable and functional. In another example, Open Bionics’ ‘Hero Arm’ is not only the world’s most affordable advanced multi-grip prosthetic arm, but, through innovative design it helps overcome stigmatization by making the arm ‘cool’ for users, with swappable covers based on designs from Marvel comics.

A stronger focus on design of the overall service addresses a need to ensure solutions can scale while still addressing the needs of a diverse group of customers. In a nutshell, this means delivering what people want, rather than addressing an assumed need.

When the Healthy Ageing Challenge was set up, the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology observed that “There is no real shortage of new assistive technologies, nor of innovative approaches to using technology to deliver better care. However, these often fail to scale up, limiting their national impact and preventing the growth of innovative businesses”. That is why we have focused on services, drawing on technology at relatively high readiness where the innovation is in the service design.

Hampshire County Council’s partnership with Argenti has been showing how an innovative, outcomes-based, business model unlocks the potential of existing assistive technologies. It does this by incentivizing a deeper understanding of the needs both of service users, and of the care professionals that make referrals into the telecare service. The outcomes focus drives a continuous improvement mindset that ensuring a high quality service.

Blackwood Homes and Care are taking the services concept a step further. The ‘Blackwood Neighborhoods’ Healthy Ageing Trailblazer project is enhancing accessible, digital home automation to incorporate a service designed to encourage and reward their residents to take an active role in their own health and wellbeing. It also offers them an opportunity to share their experience and skills with others.

The pandemic has triggered a wave of innovation in supporting people to remain independent for longer. One facet of this is that what was once referred to as electronic assistive technology has become mainstream – remote patient monitoring and consultations are no longer considered ‘special’. Alongside that have come a wave of new technology-enabled services. Manchester Camerata is now able to deliver music therapy online into care homes, others are working on solutions that enable remote management of rehabilitation exercises and there is a growing range of services supporting mental health. XR Therapeutics have been funded through UKRI’s Investment Partnership with NorthStar Ventures to use immersive technology to treat phobias and anxiety.

All this means that the value of assistive technology is now able to meet the diverse needs of a far wider population. Helping people lead a more active, independent, and socially connected life with the additional prospect of reducing demand on the NHS and residential care services.

Want to know more?

If you’re a company, organisation or researcher who’s genuinely interested in the products, services and policies which most effect the lives of older people then check out our ‘Using design to innovate more effectively in the healthy ageing sector’ paper .

For more insights, ideas and case studies emerging from the UKRI Healthy Ageing Challenge follow us on LinkedIn/@UKRI Healthy Ageing Challenge or Twitter/@HealthyAgeingUK.

About George

George MacGinnis was appointed as the Healthy Ageing Challenge Director at UKRI in January 2019. He has a varied background in health and care innovation including recent work on the future capacity needs for a reformed health and social care system in the Republic of Ireland, a review of the impact of Small Business Research Initiative in Healthcare on the NHS, and leading the user group for a global industry alliance to enable a consumer-friendly market for digital wellness and health products and services.

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