The future face of long-term care?

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Imagine being able to fill out half of the Minimum Data Set (MDS) without ever lifting a finger. How about personalized medication reminders flashing across a television screen during relaxation time? Both could help improve the healthcare of seniors — and may sound totally futuristic. Yet most of the technologies needed to make these scenarios a reality already exist in other industries.

Bringing these solutions to long-term care requires providers and technology companies understanding enough about each other's work to envision the possibilities. Progress is under way.
While some companies and scientists are ahead of others when it comes to this, one thing has become clear: If researchers have their way, there will be numerous new processes and inventions hitting the senior care market in the coming years. And they could change the senior care landscape mightily.
Regulatory and reimbursement issues still litter the path to widespread acceptance and adoption, but there are signs that manufacturers and providers will be running more in lockstep as they deal with politicians and lawmakers to get over hurdles.
On these pages, Eric Dishman, Intel Corp.'s director of proactive health research, discusses five technologies on the not-so-distant horizon. Dishman is also chairman of the Center for Aging Services Technologies, a program of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging that brings together researchers, technology companies, healthcare providers and government sources to focus on the application of technologies for the senior services community.

Wireless sensor networks
When most people think of sensors, a home security system usually comes to mind. But today, more sophisticated models are emerging that can capture a range of physiological and behavioral changes.
For example, tiny sensors embedded in a mattress can be used to monitor a resident's breathing, heart rate and sleeping patterns--and then automatically enter that data into his or her medical record.
"The magic of these wireless sensor networks is that they provide real-time data and real-trend data," explains Dishman. "You can find out how someone is doing at any point during the day, week, month or year, thus providing a view of the disease or aging process that has never been observable by other means."
Sensors are not just for residents, but for staff as well. Many employees enter care data at the end of the day based on memory, and they often underreport some of the care that has been given. Researchers believe that capturing the data in real time would reduce the number of errors and provide a data record that ensures more accurate reimbursement.
"With wireless sensor networks, we can quit making nurses and CNAs into data entry experts and let them go back to providing the high-touch care that attracted them to the job in the first place," Dishman said. He expects systems will make it to the marketplace within the next five years.


Wireless high-speed Internet
As the field of aging services has become more dependent on technology, providers in rural parts of the country have often found themselves on the wrong side of the great divide. Now, an emerging technology known as WiMax promises to bring high-speed Internet access to previously unreachable areas.
WiMax is the next generation of a technology called Wi-Fi, which is already enabling wireless Internet access in "hotspots" such as office buildings, coffee shops and airport terminals. Using rooftop towers, WiMax will expand coverage over a few square miles, eliminating the expense of laying cable to remote areas. It also holds potential for organizations that need to cover large campuses or want to avoid the expense of rewiring old buildings.
"A lot of the CCRCs we've studied have enormous campuses and are starting to extend their reach through home care to surrounding neighborhoods," Dishman said. "That creates a huge area where they need to make sure both residents and staff have 100% secure Internet access. They also need high-speed Internet to transmit rich sensor data--such as data from future optical sensors that will be able to monitor a resident's gait."
Intel predicts WiMax will hit the market in the second half of 2005. The towers will require an initial investment of approximately $10,000, and then individual users will be able to connect to the Internet using $100 access cards like those sold t