The Smart Home of the Future: Can It Replace Traditional Healthcare?

Will these smart home devices be part of your everyday life?

The Role of Connected Healthcare in the Smart Home
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Lately, department stores have been noticing an increase in the sales of smart home products. It appears that connected technologies have been demystified and are becoming commonplace. By 2022, an average smart house is expected to have around 500 smart devices, ranging from smart bulbs and smart bins to integrated telehealth devices.

Health monitoring smart home products, in particular, bring many opportunities. Some argue that nine-to-five healthcare might soon be a thing of the past. However, individual smart health gadgets such as smartwatches and activity trackers are not currently suitable to monitor our health holistically. New solutions are required, and many are currently being innovated. Experts agree that these solutions should be based on interoperability where devices can communicate with each other.

This article explores some of the areas that could benefit most from the integration of health and smart home technologies. It also covers some of the latest technology ecosystems that can support the future smart home.

What Is a Smart Home?

Imagine a home where your shower runs a quick, non-invasive health check when you step in, and your bed is equipped with sensors that detect any signs of ill health. Collected data gets shared across different home devices (or forwarded to your chosen health professional) and provides alerts to ensure your health is not compromised. These scenarios are now becoming reality.

In the near future, we will be able to live in homes that will have health built into their structure. Smart homes are becoming the building blocks of smart cities where resources can be shared effectively and intelligently, while personalized services are provided to individual inhabitants based on their unique routines and needs.

Kirsten Gram-Hanssen of the Aalborg University in Denmark and Sarah J. Darby from the University of Oxford explain that there is no fixed definition of a smart home though. There is, however, an understanding that such homes include digital sensing technology and communication devices that can seamlessly talk with one another.

Gram-Hanssen and Darby also point out that, for some, the concept of a home might not be compatible with the new idea of “smartness” (yet). Smart home technologies are altering not only our environment but also our identities, roles, and everyday practices. Therefore, some users might be reluctant to embrace this changing paradigm, and adoption of modern health-related advances may require thoughtful change management.

A Super Smart Home for Seniors

Aging in place is often mentioned in relation to smart homes. Technology can help older people stay independent and safe, and avoid (or postpone) the difficult transition to institutional care. Cox Communications unveiled their new smart home in which every device is “smart.” A strong internet connection is central to their product, and the company also provides a network for other service providers.

Not only is equipment remotely controlled, this home—called the Connected Independence—also features direct connections to family members and health professionals. For example, a person can perform their physiotherapy session remotely with online live guidance from a physiotherapist. Or, their relatives who live in another state can pop in and out via their smartphone or tablet, so loved ones are always there if required.

This super smart home also includes a smart pill dispenser, a smart pot to water your plants, and motion sensors for indoors and outdoors (useful for fall detection), as well as an automatic barcode scanner GeniCan that is attached to the home’s trash can so that discarded packaging gets scanned and the consumed items are added to the user’s shopping list.

Even pets are considered in Cox’s model house with the smart dog feeder Feed and Go. This dog feeder records your voice and can be used to schedule feedings, as well as give medications. Also, you can follow the pet’s feeding routines via a webcam to make sure a person’s furry friend is well kept.

In a modern smart home, many activities that are crucial to independent living can be monitored, and assistance is provided on an as-needed basis. If something is amiss—for example, a person has a fall or doesn’t take their medication—family can be notified immediately. However, the person living in the smart home maintains his or her autonomy and sense of independence.

Supporting Family Caregivers

Smart home solutions are often designed with caregivers in mind. The digital healthcare industry is now offering novel ways of combatting staff shortages and busy schedules.

Assistive medical robots have been proposed as replacement caregivers. They are becoming increasingly human-like and capable of meeting the different physical and emotional needs of people they care for. As robots’ emotional artificial intelligence grows, so does their acceptance.

Robots that are executing tasks related to home health care are called home healthcare robots or HHRs. Dr. Khaled Goher of Aston University in the United Kingdom describes them as robots that assist medical specialists with monitoring seniors at their homes. One example is Pillo, a robot that can answer your medical questions, help you manage your medication and nutritional supplements, order drug refills, and connect you with your healthcare team. The robot has voice and facial recognition technology and can be synced with other wearable devices in your smart home.

Research suggests that, unlike the current young generation, older people do not want their robots to be too human-like. Many prefer serious-looking robots, so platforms like Pillo—that resemble screens or speakers—might be better received than a robot with a humanoid appearance. Also, older people have expressed that they would like robots to assist them with tasks such as housekeeping, while activities connected with personal care (e.g. dressing, bathing, etc.) are better left to human companions.

Chronic Disease Management at Home

The current healthcare model that relies on home visits by nurses, doctors, and therapists is gradually being replaced by new services. Trapollo, a company that Cox Communications has acquired, has been developing different solutions for remote healthcare.

The company offers various telehealth packages that connect people with their healthcare team through technology. If people can manage their chronic conditions at home, this offers many benefits—providing it is executed properly. From a business perspective, home care also costs considerably less when compared to hospital stays, and relieves some of the pressure on the currently overstretched healthcare system of the United States.

Researchers from the well-known Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California, report on a study that showed that telemonitoring of oxygen saturation, blood pressure, body temperature, and respiratory biometrics can significantly reduce re-admissions of people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). On the other hand, telemonitoring of frail people with multiple conditions might be more challenging and will likely require proper supporting systems and protocols. So far, technology aimed at specific chronic conditions received better feedback and has more scientific support.

For instance, home technology has proven useful in the care of people with dementia. For dementia, it is being used for reminders and helps guide those dealing with dementia in the common activities of daily living. Computerized devices, such as COACH, can autonomously guide an older person with dementia through activities (e.g. hand washing) using audio and/or audio-video prompts, thus reducing the need for assistance. COACH can determine the state of the task and decide if a person needs a reminder and, if so, which one.

Smart Bedroom as the Next Opportunity

Good sleep quality is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. Sleep hygiene contributes to our health maintenance. New sleep technology that goes beyond sleep tracking can already be integrated into your smart bedroom.

You can choose to have a smart ergonomic mattress controlled by your smartphone. Or, you can get an alarm clock that wakes you up, simulating natural sunrise light. Smart technology is available for every corner of your bedroom, from bulbs to blinds. You can even try to reduce your child’s bad dreams by using the Sleep Guardian, which automatically vibrates to stop night terrors from happening (without waking up your little one).

Furthermore, scientists now believe that our behaviors while awake can be predicted from sleep behaviors (and sleep quality) and vice versa. Jennifer Williams and Diane Cook who work at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Washington State University are conducting research into sleep and wake cycles using smart home technology. Their research is performed with the help of the University’s CASAS smart home system.

The aim of their research is to be able to predict wake and sleep scores of individuals by analyzing data collected by bedroom sensors. This means that soon, we might be able to predict our “bad days” and prepare accordingly. The results could also help plan a better model of care for an individual living in a smart home.

Can Smart Home Devices Replace Healthcare Services?

There is a burning question in digital healthcare: one day, can a well-managed smart home be a substitute for hospital care? Experts agree that many health conditions, especially chronic diseases, could be monitored and treated in a home equipped with necessary smart home products.

However, there will probably always be a need for hospitals and face-to-face health interventions. Nonetheless, connected home health is a vision that should be encouraged. It offers plenty of opportunities for patient empowerment and control, as well as lowering health expenses in many situations.

Connected smart homes might not yet be able to completely replace existing healthcare services, but they can add value to the healthcare continuum of care, improve the quality of care, and reduce the mounting pressures on a healthcare system that in many ways is over capacity.

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