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Technology in retirement: The future’s bright

18 Apr 2019 By Octopus Real Estate

Combine technology, healthcare and the retirement population and you get an interesting conversation. So what happened when Kevin Beirne, Director of Octopus Healthcare’s retirement team and Will Gibbs, of the Octopus Ventures ‘Future of Healthcare’ team met to exchange views on where tech could be taking the retirement industry? Well, let’s listen in as they discuss how the future could look…


Kevin Beirne, Director, Octopus Healthcare

Tech is only interesting to me in a real-world context. Customers need to be able to use it and it needs to fit into the existing healthcare system. That’s when it can be monetised.


Will Gibbs, Investment Manager, Octopus Ventures 

My interest is a bit broader. But the range – from deep tech to things like home urine tests sent through the post – includes your area, Kevin.


Kevin – My focus is the 75+ age group. They’re reasonably active but they’re dealing with long term conditions like diabetes, arthritis and pulmonary disease. These are the big costs to the health system. Stand outside any A&E and you’ll see that the ambulances are bringing in a large proportion of older people whose long-term conditions have gone out of kilter.


Will – Yes, it’s about reducing readmission rates. Two-thirds of GP appointments are follow-ups, not primary visits. These are the ones that could be handled through tech. For example, remote patient monitoring or urine and blood tests done in the home. Hospitals could, one day, be acute settings only.


Kevin – The retirement population face three big questions:

  • how do I stay healthy for longer?
  • how do I manage my increasing frailty?
  • how do I stay independent? (This is often a big one for men particularly).

Applying tech to these questions, the issue becomes one of passive, versus active use. We should be subtracting, not adding to the problem. Fiddly apps aren’t going to cut it. Intelligent hardware is. I recently heard about the ‘intelligent loo’. This does eight tests on your ‘output’ each time you sit on it. (Apparently, Henry VIII’s health was managed in a similar way, but that’s another story). Proteins and blood sugar levels are monitored and conditions like bowel cancer can be picked up very, very early. Put these in your retirement village and you’ve got a very compelling proposition.


Will – Yes, tech in healthcare is about anticipating problems. There’s been a demographic shift, but on top of that is shifting consumer expectation. Users of health services are expecting more, without expecting to pay more. Ask people ‘how much does an X-ray cost?’ and they probably won’t have a clue. Also, the system is skewed: acute care is much more accessible than social care. This means we’re culturally conditioned to want a better service within an existing or lower budget.


Kevin -Simplicity is the way in for tech for older people. Something as simple as “press this button on my phone to tell my family I’m ok every day” or an online shopping site that’s incredibly easy to use is just about harnessing and packaging intelligent tech that is already out there and fronting it with a clear and straight-forward interface.


Will – Identifying problems early, keeping people well, is where a lot of healthcare tech is emerging (companies we’ve invested in like Elvie, Big Health and My Tomorrows). But there’s also a lot happening in pre-op and post-operative care. Myrecovery is an example of a service that tracks your patient journey, cutting out the need for unnecessary follow-up hospital visits.


Kevin – This is the kind of tech that can be brought into retirement living. Tracking a person’s movement patterns around their living space via light switches, the kettle, the fridge, as well as sensors and pressure pads can transform the rhythm and efficiency of care. A nurse or carer doesn’t need to mechanically visit ‘well’ residents, so attention goes to where it’s needed much more efficiently. These systems aren’t that sophisticated as yet, but the potential’s there.


Will – The most tech-savvy (the young) are the least needy when it comes to Healthtech. So systems that don’t require older people to learn new behaviours are preferable. That will change as younger, tech-fluent generations age, but that’s a way off. The macro trend is towards people taking responsibility for their health. (Daily probiotics or multivitamins are a very weak example of that). But the consumerisation of health, wanting to understand my own personal risk profile, is the direction of travel. That’s with the younger end of the population of course.


Kevin – Yes, but by 2035, about 25% of the UK will be over 65. In the same way that people are buying cars based more on the console in the middle of the dashboard, rather than the drive itself, retirement villages will be weighed up against the tech – the useful, proven tech – they contain.


Will – We should mention the NHS. My colleague Gian made a good point in a recent blog that the NHS – healthcare in general – is necessarily cautious. The entrepreneur’s usual credo of ‘fail fast’ can’t apply here – the stakes are too high. I’m guessing the retirement living space is similar.


Kevin – The appetite’s there, but we need to understand how we incorporate tech into our core processes and offerings, at the consumer level, the retirement community or at NHS level. Right now we’re still trying to tack tech onto an analogue system. Exactly where does the transition happen? That’s still being worked out.


Will – The appetite for risk is necessarily low and costs of development are still high in healthcare. So no one would implement a lot of tech innovations for ROI savings today. But as things become more commoditised and mainstream, costs will come down as will the risk profile. To your point about analogue/digital, new tech will be implemented more easily.


Kevin – In the meantime there’s very little standardisation. I recently opened a care home that was operating six different platforms. The critical path to getting the place open was in getting the tech to work! It’s a splintered market out there.


Will – As for entrepreneurs, retirement healthcare tech is not on the list of sexy markets. Not for first-time founders at least. The more seasoned, serial entrepreneurs have more of an eye out for macro trends, where the markets are larger – healthcare in old age, of course, being one of them. But there aren’t many out there. Nourish is one of them. We’re seeing more, but it’s still slow.


Kevin – The government’s healthcare fund – Health X – is just sitting there waiting…


Will – The raw tech talent is best in the UK. Particularly in artificial intelligence (AI) and Deeptech. The presence of the NHS in some ways makes it harder for startups to emerge: there’s a cost aversion based on how we’ve been culturally immersed. But despite the difficulties with trying to spin up private solutions, the talent and capital are definitely here.


Kevin – Absolutely. The business case for tech in retirement healthcare does stack up.


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