Microsoft commits to easing the UK’s social care problem

Lindsay James
Lindsay James
By Lindsay James on 09 August 2017
Microsoft commits to easing the UK’s social care problem

Microsoft has joined the Agile Ageing Alliance (AAA), a UK-wide group that aims to enable older adults to remain in their own home and reduce the country’s £20 billion annual social care bill.

The AAA is a social business made up of more than 600 private and public organisations to look at how new homes and conversions can contain technology to meet the needs of an ageing population.

Wearable devices, communicative products such as Skype and products able to predict events including falls could be effective in allowing people to continue living in their own home rather than moving to a care home or relying on hands-on care.

Life expectancy in the UK is now 82.9 years for women and 79.2 years for men, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). As well as living longer, people also manage health conditions for many more years. According to the ONS, a 65-year-old man will spend, on average, 44% of the rest of his life in poorer health, and a woman, 47% of her life.

This has a knock-on effect on the amount of money the UK government is spending on social care. The total spend hit £17 billion in England alone in the last financial year; in the latest available figures, Scotland spent £2.9 billion in 2013/14, while Wales spent £1.4 billion in 2015/16.

“People are living longer and social and care services are not sustainable, we have to disrupt the whole system,” said Ian Spero, the founder of AAA. “Our homes are going to change, like our cars have – 15 years ago our cars just got us from A to B, now even the most basic car includes some form of smart, connected technology. With the proliferation of high-speed broadband and the internet of things, buildings will be transformed from inanimate shells to customisable cognitive homes, which will allow people to remain independent for longer and break down some of the problems we face in terms of chronic isolation.

“Technology can make a huge difference, it can lead to better lives. Some of the biggest challenges relate to people falling at home. There is technology that can predict when people fall, unobtrusive and passive monitoring that can alert friends and family in advance that someone’s movement is slowing down.”

AAA, which has released a white paper on the ageing issue entitled Neighbourhoods of the Future, has enlisted Microsoft to help. Spero said that following extensive research he looked beyond the company’s market-leading expertise in artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing and was particularly impressed with Microsoft’s sense of purpose. “I have been speaking with different parts of the organisation about our project for better part of two years now and the thing that really impressed me was how keen people are to listen. I have come to believe that the people who work here really want to make a difference. I am excited by the potential scope of this opportunity and see Microsoft as the glue that can bind this initiative together.”

Microsoft has launched a health bot in the US, which uses AI to help medical professionals treat patients, while its InnerEye research project (above) is using AI to help doctors treat diseases such as cancer. They form part of Healthcare NeXT, a series of initiatives announced earlier this year to help organisations use intelligent technology to improve the lives of people across the world. This AI technology, underpinned by the Azure cloud platform, can be used in homes to learn more about patients and connect them with healthcare workers when issues arise.

“Council budgets are under pressure. Elderly people end up in Accident and Emergency at hospitals, or their families have to provide the care needed,” said Paul Thomas, Digital Advisor at Microsoft.

The ONS stated that unpaid adult carers in the UK provided care worth an estimated £56.9 billion in 2014.

“A lot of this spend and stress could be avoided through the use of technology: reconfiguring services, supporting people with conditions and helping them live in their homes,” Thomas pointed out.

Age UK, the charity for older people, said the main goal for a better social care system must be for older people to retain their independence at home. “Maintaining their independence, health and wellbeing for as long as possible is what almost every older person says they want and represents good value for the taxpayer,” the charity said.

The use of technology has become a valid option as people become more comfortable using it. According to the ONS, internet use among UK women aged 75 and over has trebled since 2011, and there has also been a steady increase in the 65-74 age group, for both genders, from 52% in 2011 to 78% in 2017.

Using data gathered from internet-connected devices around a home, a person’s health can be monitored 24 hours a day. Wearable devices can alert relatives and healthcare professionals if a patient has a fall, for example, or sensors could spot changes in the amount of water being used in the house, suggesting a person is incapacitated.

“By using cloud computing power and applying that to medical data, we can, as a colleague of mine says, find the needles in the haystacks in that information. The revolution is in the data rather than the device,” Thomas added.

Ed Steidl, global programme manager at Microsoft Innovation Centers, which champions entrepreneurs and start-ups, has been leading Microsoft’s interest in the AAA initiative. He said: “Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more. That means everyone, including the ageing population.”

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