The Aging of America: A Golden Opportunity for Tech Experts

by Don Willmott

Ready. Set. Retire. Next year, the first official Baby Boomers (born in 1946) turn 65. In the 18 following years, 76 million people will hit official retirement age as this unprecedented population bulge moves through its 70s and 80s. It’s a phenomenon that’s occurring across the entire industrialized world, and it’s actually far more dramatic in places like Japan and Italy, where rapidly growing elderly populations are taxing government resources. All those folks are going to need your help.

The Aging of America: A Golden Opportunity for Tech ExpertsTo see this trend in graph form, check out this neat animated visualization at General Electric’s website. It graphically compares America’s aging population to those of other countries. You can watch yourself grow old!

Now why would GE care about such things? Because it smells money, and lots of it. Like many other technology companies, GE is looking for ways to use technology to monitor and control chronic disease management and age-related conditions. In fact, last year it mounted a joint venture with Intel to explore the new world of “telehealth,” which it defines as remote patient monitoring, independent living concepts, and assistive technologies. GE and Intel say that home health monitoring was already a $3 billion business in 2009 and will grow to $7.7 billion in 2012. Imagine how big it will be when 20 million more of us are in our 80s.

And imagine how your skills in networking or application development could be applied.

The rush is already on. A recent New York Times article outlined lots of gadgetry and services already available for deployment in the homes of the elderly. They’re Net-connected tools that can be monitored either by a paid service or by the family and friends of the senior. We’re no longer talking about “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” panic buttons. Now there are cameras, wired pillboxes (you get a text message saying Grandma didn’t take her blue pill this morning), and motion sensors (Alert! Grandma hasn’t left her bedroom yet today).

On a recent visit to AT&T Labs, I heard about the concept of “smart slippers.” Imagine if Grandma wore these special shoes and let them monitor and transmit her movement around the house and her vital signs. Whether Grandma would willingly sign up for this kind of thing is something for the family to discuss around the dining room table, but the benefits for everyone involved are obvious.

But $7.7 billion is peanuts compared to the total size of this market once it broadens to include hospitals looking to improve their remote patient monitoring capabilities. Time and again we see that employment related to healthcare – including healthcare IT employment – holds steady or grows no matter what the overall employment picture looks like. We’ve already heard a lot about how the future of electronic medical records will require a tech intervention of vast scope, but you should also keep your eye on these burgeoning telehealth initiatives. What better way for hospitals to control costs than to automate routine patient monitoring and shift some of their labor elsewhere? This is what GE, Intel, and AT&T are thinking about, and you should be thinking about it too.

The future of healthcare will require database and application development, networking skills of virtually every kind, data security, project management, and a hospital-centric form of business intelligence. Economic stimulus money has already flowed in this general direction, and as the country continues to grapple with the healthcare costs of an aging population, it’s going to turn to technology to address the problem. If you think this is an election issue this year, just wait until 2016 or so. By then we’re all going to be reaching for our panic buttons.

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