It’s been an exciting year for digital health. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma announced her endorsement of remote patient monitoring. Various healthcare industries began utilizing telehealth to help clinicians combat the opioid crisis. And lawmakers in the US Congress continue to push the RUSH Act, which would improve support for skilled nursing facilities that wish to utilize telehealth.
Through these examples and more, we are witnessing HealthTech gain more and more power to grow and benefit the healthcare industry, clinicians, and most importantly, patients. Digital health is breaking down social determinants of health by expanding access to care for individuals who are living in rural areas, those who are homebound, and others who struggle to receive high-quality care that fits their needs. These technologies are also penetrating low-income areas and increasing the accessibility of diverse, affordable care opportunities.
Digital Health for the Third Age
Even the older adult population, which is far more challenging to permeate when it comes to technological endeavors, is benefitting from digital health. Older adults are becoming more connected, more empowered, and better served by clinicians who are using digital health tools. When done right and integrated according to current habits and lifestyles, tech supports senior health through a variety of methods, ranging from robotic companions to remote home safety assessments.
One branch of digital health in particular—remote monitoring—has shown to be a revolutionizing tool, providing clinicians, institutions, and caregivers with unique data that has the ability to guide care and optimize the health of older adults. Remote monitoring of seniors has come a long way from the fall detection necklace. The rise of digital health has allowed for the tracking of heart rate, blood glucose levels, and even urine output from afar, helping to bridge the gap between health and independence.
Let’s Talk About Cognition
For several reasons, cognitive health and monitoring is a field that is less explored by innovators and HealthTech advocates. For one, cognition is a sensitive topic for seniors. Its innate association with intelligence, independence, and capability characterizes any related discussion as a threat. It is easier and less personal to discuss physical vitals as opposed to cognitive ones. In most communities, there remains a stigma towards cognitive decline similar to that of mental illness—it is misunderstood, feared, and consistently denied
Another reason cognition is tackled less than say, blood pressure, is because it is widely considered a “normal” part of aging. Many researchers and health professionals are working to combat this notion and encourage both health communities and the public to approach cognitive decline with the seriousness it demands as a disease.
Finally, cognition is incredibly complex, making it difficult to diagnose and understand. Upon his announcement to invest in Alzheimer’s research, Bill Gates explained the two major problems regarding the current methods of Alzheimer’s diagnosis: “First, it can be expensive and invasive. Second, patients aren’t being tested for the disease until they start showing cognitive decline.” These diagnostic limitations make it is especially important that healthcare providers begin employing techniques to remotely monitor cognitive and behavioral changes in older adults who are at risk of cognitive decline.
Cognitive Decline: Not an Isolated Incident
What we know:
- Today, there is still no known cure for types cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia . However, non-pharmacological approaches, such as cognitive training, have shown to prolong functional independence in early stages of the disease and once symptoms progress.
- Certain measures can actually ameliorate cognitive functioning for individuals at-risk of decline. The FINGER Study, a two-year intervention from Finland, found that those at risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s significantly benefited from healthier lifestyle habits—such as diet and exercise—along with cognitive training, when compared to the control group that did not receive the intervention.
- Cognition and hospitalization are inevitably intertwined. Several studies have explored the two-way relationship between cognition and rehospitalization, proving that cognitive impairment is a risk for hospitalization, and conversely, that hospitalization can accelerate the deterioration of cognitive impairment. By correctly monitoring cognition, providers and clinicians can prevent hospitalization or readmissions that are accelerated by cognitive change.
- The same can be said for the deterioration of other chronic conditions, such as diabetes. By approaching chronic care management from a cognitive angle, professionals can gain important insights into subtle changes in cognitive status that could strongly impact the progression of chronic conditions and overall health.
Brain Health for Full Health
While remote monitoring and other forms of digital health are confronting the physical aspects of illness head on, integration between tech and cognitive care methods has yet to become the norm. The result is severe: Patient discharges frequently occur once physical milestones are met, with no protocol in place for cognitive milestones; high rates of readmissions are resulting from functional difficulties as patients transition home; preventable deteriorations occur in chronic conditions that otherwise could have been foreshadowed by cognitive monitoring.
As digital health has become the norm and remote monitoring continues to gain mainstream acceptance, it is time to introduce cognitive monitoring to the table. Doing so will not only have an enormous effect on cognitive impairments and forms of dementia, but also on hospitalization trends, chronic conditions, and the loop of care for older adults.