Why Star Trek was right about healthcare
We are now living in a world where projections of a far-off, fantasy future are starting to become a reality. The geekier among us, the avid readers and watchers of sci-fi, will have spotted this better than anyone. Headphones were first seen in Fahrenheit 451, Orwell famously predicted CCTV, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy saw the use of touch-screen technology decades before launch of the iPhone.
The Tricorder Project
These imaginary future gizmos are particularly notable in the realm of healthcare. Indeed, the latest sci-fi medical creation to become a reality can be found in cult-classic, Star Trek - the Tricorder. For those who didn't watch the show, the Tricorder is a hand-held computer with a detachable sensor normally used by Dr McCoy himself to diagnose patients (some human, some not-quite human). A quick scan with the Tricorder indicated exactly what the patient in question was suffering from, whether traditional illnesses, injuries, or even the odd infestation by alien organisms.
Ever since the show hit our TV screens in 1966, scientists and doctors have dreamed of developing a hand-held, multi-function medical scanner that can take readings from a patient, analyse data and then diagnose various conditions. Five decades later and we're nearly there.
In 2012, The X Prize Foundation, an organisation that aims to increase innovation by offering cash prizes, announced the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, offering a $10 million prize for the development of real-life Tricorder.
Sensors and robots - a remedy for an aging population?
There are obvious applications for healthcare and this remote sensing technology, originally dreamt up in Star Trek, is already helping to develop a next-generation of medical robots and smart health devices. These could be used to assess, treat and support people who are injured or physically or mentally constrained. New devices, cloud technologies and apps can be used to create virtual care teams that include doctors, health coaches, friends and neighbours - something we would all benefit from in our later years. We will get more constrained as we grow older and many people over 60 suffer from one or more chronic conditions.
This year in fact, out of a global population of 7 billion, there are 900 million people over the age of 60. This figure is expected to rise to 2.4 billion by 2050, meaning that we will soon be living in a world with more old people than children, with many at a more advanced age than ever before.
Japan, which has the world's oldest population, is also one of the world's largest robot markets. In the 2013 budget, 2.39 billion yen (£14.4 million) was allocated to develop robots to help with care. Many companies are using innovations in wireless technology and miniature sensors to enable real time monitoring of people's physical activity and vital signs - Philips' 24/7 connected LifeLine pendant, healthwatch and blood pressure monitors are just one example of this. But it's not just devices and apps, it is really about understanding the needs of people and the collaborative care that we can organize around them, using digital technologies and data analytics.
Scientists in Japan are also attempting to address other issues of an increased demand in caregiving with the development of robots known as iysashi (healing). One such pioneering project is Paro, a social robot that resembles a baby harp seal and has been shown to lift the spirits of elderly adults with dementia and depression.
Could 80 be the new 60?
The reality is that whilst we've been focusing on extending life, we haven't given anywhere near enough attention to also improving it towards the end, and today there is an acute shortage of geriatric specialists and nurses. The highest cost of healthcare is in a person's last year.
Happily, times are changing. Governments are aware that the needs of an ageing population must be addressed through joint research between universities, NGOs, policymakers and businesses. One positive signal of the shift towards a focus on ageing well is the long list of commitments announced by the US government at the recent White House Conference on Aging. Similar efforts are also under way in the EU with the Partnership on Active and Healthy Aging.
What is inevitable is that smart uses of technology - from robots to Tricorders and connected devices - will be needed to relieve some of the pressure on the healthcare system. The tech revolution has defined the modern age, and, as a result, has focussed largely on the young. But the reality is that the people for whom technology could have the most life-changing impact are those who haven't grown up with it.
October 1st is the World Health Organisation's International Day of Older Persons, so it's a good time to think about our own elderly relatives and maybe even consider how technology might be able to help them in their daily lives. Together we can find creative ways to apply the knowledge and gadgetry that millennials take for granted in order to build happier, more age-friendly societies. We can help elderly people living dignified lives at home, knowing that they will be supported and cared for around the clock.