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Focusing on “Care” as much as “Cure” in health around the world

Upon returning to Redmond from my keynote address at FutureMed in San Diego last week, I held an executive briefing on the Microsoft campus for a group of customers and partners who were visiting from Holland. As a former practicing physician and hospital executive I’d be the first to admit that my briefings tend to lean more toward how technology is transforming healthcare and clinical workflow from a somewhat provider-centric point of view. Many of the visiting executives from Holland at this particular briefing represented senior living facilities, mental health organizations, and health education entities. During my presentation and the discussion that followed, our guests quickly and quite rightly reminded me that there is much more to health and healthcare than doctors, nurses, hospitals and clinics. One of the guests spoke up and said, “You’ve told us a lot about what Microsoft is doing in the field of cure Dr. Crounse, tell us more about how technology is shaping the world of care.”

It turns out the audience I was speaking to could probably tell me as much about this as I could tell them. You see, every time I visit countries in Western Europe like Denmark or Holland, I come away very impressed by some of the innovations I see around patient-centric uses of technology to improve care. One example is a project recently featured in a case study coming out of Denmark.

Welfare Denmark, Located in Esbjerg, is involved in a number of public and private partnerships to develop innovative welfare technology solutions that are geared toward the highest usability for patients. In collaboration with scientists and physiotherapists, Welfare Denmark built Virtual Rehabilitation, a device based on Microsoft Kinect for Windows technology that works with Microsoft Lync 2010 and Skype federation.

Each patient gets a Kinect camera that includes a depth sensor that can read human body language. A Hewlett Packard touch screen with a SIM card uploads encrypted data through the mobile network. The solution takes advantage of Microsoft Lync 2010 and a multi-array microphone so patients can use instant messaging or videoconferencing to communicate with physiotherapists. The solution includes software that guides patients through rehabilitation exercises, monitors and corrects their movements in real time, making it possible for health care practitioners to see whether patients have completed the therapies.

In just one early case at Esbjerg, a 73-year old man successfully used the solution and, over a three-month period, the municipality saved nearly US$2,500. Without Virtual Rehabilitation, the cost to the municipality, which pays for patient care, would have been $1,955 for two home visits per month by referred therapists, and $1,400 for five days at a rehabilitation center—a total of $3,355. With Virtual Rehabilitation, the total cost of licenses plus two online consultations per month with referred therapists was $898, a savings of $2,457. Statistics Denmark, a Danish governmental organization, estimates that in five years, there will be 20 percent more elderly people in Denmark to care for. Welfare Denmark is just one organization that’s working to overcome health care’s biggest global challenges, from rising costs to services inequalities. Clearly this is an example where the focus is on care as much as cure. The solution is helping to keep the frail elderly in their own homes where they will be most comfortable.

Another recent example comes from Holland where senior care researchers are working on robotic care assistants or helpers. Actually, I’ve been seeing senior care solutions based on robotics popping up around the world. The research not only strives to come up with more affordable adjuncts for care in a patient’s home, but also hopes to address the anticipated shortages of trained staff as the population of elderly persons and those suffering from chronic diseases continues to grow. A video recently posted on YouTube (see below) shows one such example of a robotic helper. It uses a Kinect sensor positioned in the robot’s “mouth” for navigation, hearing and vision. A single robotic arm is used to deliver food or other items to people interacting with the robot. The hope is that one day, robots similar to this can be used in senior care facilities or even a person’s own home to offer extra care and assistance with activities of daily living.

There is a role for technology in both care and cure. And while a robotic assistant or a virtual therapist are not a substitute for the caring, warm hands of a human, such technologies are definitely needed to help us meet the growing demand for more affordable, scalable health services. Learn more by watching the videos above.

Bill Crounse, MD

Senior Director, Worldwide Health