OP-ED: ICT Promoting Healthy Ageing and Better Quality of Life

The race is on to scale up the necessary digital technologies to help people age more healthily, live longer fulfilling lives, and help societies cope with larger numbers of older and elderly people. PHOTO: Freepik The race is on to scale up the necessary digital technologies to help people age more healthily, live longer fulfilling lives, and help societies cope with larger numbers of older and elderly people. PHOTO: Freepik
<center>The race is on to scale up the necessary digital technologies to help people age more healthily, live longer fulfilling lives, and help societies cope with larger numbers of older and elderly people. PHOTO: Freepik</center>

Many countries are experiencing a demographic shift towards older populations. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), the number of people aged 65 years or older is projected to double globally to reach 1.5 billion by 2050. Many developing countries, with comparatively young populations, are seeing increases in life expectancy, with growing numbers of older people, living longer lives.

Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) can facilitate healthy ageing, helping people live better-quality lives for longer.

Digital health platforms, such as e-health and associated mobile (m-Health) and telemedicine platforms, have brought digital technologies into widespread use for health-related purposes in a wide range of settings, both inside and outside of hospitals and clinics.

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The World Health Organization (WHO) defines e-health as any use of ICTs for health. Given the proliferation of digital devices for personal and business use, digital technologies have become an enabler in treatment and prevention strategies. For example, wearables and fitness devices can provide continuous monitoring and prevention as patients go about their daily activities.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recognizes digital health as a core aspect of sustainable digital transformation for economies and societies worldwide. This means ensuring fixed or wireless Internet access for everyone, especially where no wire or fiber connections are available. Ongoing ITU standardization work includes studies and initiatives to strengthen digital health, establish emergency numbers, and ensure accessibility for older persons. ITU also has a Focus Group working on Artificial Intelligence and health data.

​Enhancing digital health capabilities aligns with UN Sustainable Development Goal 3 (Good health & well-being) and helps people and communities everywhere achieve healthy ageing. ​​

Opportunities

Our world is ageing rapidly. According to UN DESA, the number of people aged 65 or older is projected to grow from 703 million in 2019 to 1.5 billion by 2050. UN DESA’s latest projections also show that people aged 80+ will triple in the next 30 years. By 2050, one in six people in the world will be over the age of 65, up from just one in eleven in 2019.

The race is on to scale up the necessary digital technologies to help people age more healthily, live longer fulfilling lives, and help societies cope with larger numbers of older and elderly people. New and emerging tech, including artificial intelligence (AI) and other applications, can enhance well-being, enable people to grow older in healthier ways, and expand access to better healthcare.

Digital technologies support healthy ageing in multiple ways, including:

  • Improving the prevention of illness and boosting health and well-being at all ages via devices and apps (sensors, monitors, wristwatches, and mobiles) for continual health monitoring and feedback.
  • Empowering patients with reliable health information and healthcare providers, managers, and policy-makers with tools to build and operate more resilient health systems, deliver better care, and improve treatments and survival rates.
  • Enriching health datasets enables increasingly accurate analysis, diagnosis, and prediction of health issues, including through AI, big data, or virtual reality (VR) simulations. Aggregated data from devices and sensors brings together imaging, diagnoses, and data analytics through computing at the edge.
  • Improving ICT ensures that everyone regardless of age, gender, or ability, can equally and equitably access, and make use of ICTs.
  • Implementing ICT accessibility also provides alternative solutions to the use of technology and thus, ensures that age-related disabilities such as reduced vision and hearing loss do not impact the access to digital products and services nor to understanding the information and communication, which in case of emergency or crisis could be vital. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital technologies have been key to combatting loneliness and isolation among older people cut off from family and friends.
  • Compensating for problems and challenges that frequently accompany older age, such as reduced vision or hearing.
  • Reducing social isolation for older persons.

Challenges

  1. Growing numbers with unequal access: One challenge derives from the sheer size of the demographic bulge, with the world’s total number of people aged 65 or older set to grow by 800 million by 2050. While many people will inhabit urban centers, others will live in rural, remote, or inaccessible areas. Age-based discrimination in the workplace and inadequate financial inclusion for older persons are key challenges to address for this population to benefit fully from digital transformation.

Telehealth services have become vital to extend high-quality care​ beyond urban centers. Similarly, telemedicine and virtual healthcare have come to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic, offsetting limited physical access between patients and healthcare providers. Even so, telemedicine has largely attracted well-educated and comparatively younger people, who, on average, need less healthcare for the time being.​


SEE ALSO: Benefits of telemedicine as the top health technology service


  1. Decentralized data and advice: Personal health and fitness devices can also support healthy ageing, although not as a substitute for professional care and interventions. Historically, healthcare systems have prioritized cures over prevention, and interventionist rather than preventive medicine. The wealth of fitness trackers and health apps available can serve as helpful guides to promote good health at all ages, without their advice being taken too literally. For instance, the medical and scientific basis for apps promoting “10,000 steps per day” is unclear.

Some patients now come to see their doctors armed with large files and databases of health data (e.g., cardiac rhythms, oxygenation levels, etc.), which doctors may be unable to download or properly analyze directly. General practitioners may struggle to keep up with data deluge, while health systems and health insurance plans may not reimburse doctors for time spent dealing with e-mails or external data.

The consequences of digital transformation and patient digital literacy for today’s health systems are still being worked out.

ALSO READ: MOBILE HEALTH CLINICS: BRINGING MEDICAL SERVICES TO REMOTE AREAS

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