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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 2.5 billion people worldwide need at least one assistive product. With the global population ageing and an increase in noncommunicable diseases, over 3.5 billion people are likely to need one or more assistive products within the next 25 years.
Essentially, assistive technology is a term that covers the services and systems associated with assistive products that improve a person’s independence and functioning. Examples include hearing aids, communication aids and prostheses.
What is assistive technology in health and social care?
Assistive technology is anything that enables individuals to lead independent, dignified and productive lives. It allows people to participate in work, education and leisure activities and reduces the need for care. Without important assistive technology, individuals risk being isolated and excluded from society, which will increase the impact their disability or disease has on them and their loved ones.
Generally speaking, those who need assistive technology the most are:
- Older people
- People with disabilities
- People who have a noncommunicable disease like stroke or diabetes
- People with a neurological condition or disorder like dementia or autism spectrum disorder
Though we might think of technology as IT and software or robotic devices and virtual reality, anything that is of assistance to individuals needing health and social care comes under the umbrella of assistive technology.
COVID-19 meant that many systems in health and social care were catapulted into new ways of working. In-person consultations were replaced with telephone calls and video consultations. More people than ever before were using smartphones and tablets to access support. In this situation, assistive technology was a godsend. It meant people could access support while staying safe.
What are the different types of assistive technology in health and social care?
Assistive technology is often used to describe systems or products that support and help people with impairments like restricted mobility or disabilities. It helps them to carry out tasks that they otherwise would find impossible or difficult.
However, products used in health and social care or by health and social care professionals don’t automatically come under the umbrella of medical devices. Assistive technology can, of course, be a medical device, but many are simply considered to be aids for daily living instead.
When assistive technology is a medical device it usually means it is an appliance, instrument, software or apparatus that is used specifically for therapeutic purposes. It will alleviate or treat a disease, injury or disability, or modify the existing anatomy in some way.
An example of a medical device that comes under assistive technology is a prescribed walking aid. This has the primary purpose of alleviating injury symptoms by reducing weight-bearing on an injured limb.
Assistive technology also encompasses systems and products that help and support people with impairments, restricted mobility and disabilities. Assistive devices help these individuals to maintain or improve their quality of life by compensating for their disability, impairment or injury.
Daily living aids
Things that help individuals to do their daily activities are classed as daily living aids. These can be used by anyone, although they’re usually used in health and social care environments.
Wearable technology in healthcare
Though wearable technology has been in existence for a while in the form of wristwatches with health tracking data, there are now wearable health tracking devices with sensors and alarms.
Examples of assistive technology
Here are some examples of the types of assistive technology available:
- Mobility aids: canes, walking frames, scooters and wheelchairs.
- Communication devices: augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) tools.
- Speech-generating devices.
- Daily living aids: adaptive kitchen tools and modified bathroom equipment.
- Sensory aids: visual aids and hearing aids.
- Telehealth and remote monitoring: remote patient monitoring systems, virtual consultations and telemedicine platforms.
How is assistive technology used in health and social care?
Assistive technology is used in a variety of ways in health and social care and this is tailored to the specific needs of those involved.
Assistive technology has a crucial role in promoting independence for those with health conditions or disabilities. Mobility devices like wheelchairs, scooters and walking aids help individuals with mobility impairments to move independently both indoors and outdoors.
Communication aids like speech-generating devices can help those with speech impairments to express themselves and communicate effectively using devices that generate spoken words for them. ACC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) tools also support individuals who have communication challenges by offering alternative communication methods that use text, gestures and symbols.
Daily living aids like modified utensils and gadgets mean that people with physical limitations can still prepare meals independently. Assistive bathroom equipment also allows people to maintain a level of independence and dignity in their personal hygiene.
Sensory aids like hearing aids and visual aids help individuals with hearing or visual impairments, allowing them to participate in activities and navigate their surroundings.
Smart home technology like voice-activated lighting and blinds can make life easier for individuals with impairments. Remote monitoring sensors and alarms also provide a safety net while people live independently.
What are the benefits of assistive technology in health and social care?
Assistive technology in health and social care has a wide range of benefits for individuals, their caregivers and the healthcare system.
Devices like wheelchairs, scooters and walking aids help people to move independently, while adaptive tools in the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen mean people can perform essential tasks on their own.
Assistive technologies like AAC tools and speech-generating devices facilitate communication for those with speech or language impediments. This allows them to self-advocate and play a positive part in society.
Assistive technology allows more people to access the world and their environment. Hearing aids and visual aids allow people to engage fully with daily activities despite visual impairments or hearing loss, for example.
Remote healthcare access
Developments in technology mean that remote healthcare is more possible than ever before. Telehealth services offer virtual consultations, which make it easier for many people to access medical professionals. This is particularly useful for those in remote areas or cases of mobility challenges.
Increased productivity for caregivers
Assistive technology in the form of transfer aids and lifts reduces the physical strain on caregivers, which makes caregiving tasks more manageable.
Promotion of social inclusion
Assistive technologies promote social inclusion and interaction. They allow people to be a full part of society and able to communicate with others so feelings of isolation are reduced.
Improved safety and wellbeing
Monitoring systems and sensors enhance care by alerting caregivers or the emergency services about a change in health status or an emergency.
Employment and education opportunities
Assistive technology means that workplaces and schools can better accommodate those with disabilities, meaning they’re better able to succeed.
Empowerment and dignity
With assistive technology, individuals have greater control over their lives and have more independence in their care.
When individuals can access assistive technology, it means that they’re relying less on caregivers to carry out tasks for them. Remote monitoring devices are also excellent cost savers too as they can prevent hospitalisation and provide early intervention.
What are the risks of assistive technology in health and social care?
Though assistive technology in health and social care offers clear and numerous benefits, it’s also important to be aware of the risks and challenges associated with its implementation. Here are some of the risks you might come across:
Data security and privacy concerns
When assistive technology uses, collects and stores sensitive health data, assistive technology systems might be vulnerable to unauthorised access. This raises concerns about confidentiality and privacy.
As great as assistive technology is, some individuals who may benefit from it in the short term can become over-reliant on it, which might lead to a reduction in the development of essential skills. It could, for example, hinder their overall long-term self-sufficiency and independence.
User acceptance and training
Some individuals may resist using new technologies if they’re uncomfortable or unfamiliar with them. This can impact the effectiveness of the tools. Inadequate training is also an issue, both for caregivers and individuals using devices. This then limits the potential benefits of them.
Reduction in face-to-face interactions
With assistive technology comes a decrease in face-to-face interactions that would otherwise have taken place. Though many devices are used to encourage independence, there is a risk of further social isolation if everything becomes remote or on a screen.
Potential future trends of assistive technology
Recent innovations in technology have meant that we’re on the cusp of new and innovative introductions. Several emerging technologies are set to redefine assistive technology, ensuring that it continues to evolve to meet the diverse needs of individuals. Here are some possibilities for the future of assistive technology:
Integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI)
AI algorithms will likely play a pivotal role in tailoring assistive technology to individual user needs. This means using predictive models that will anticipate user requirements and adapt things accordingly.
Smart wearable devices and implants
Assistive technologies are already available as wearables but the idea of implants goes one step further. Examples of future products include smart spectacles, neuroprosthetics, and smart hearing aids.
It is likely that future assistive technologies will become more intuitive and interactive so that humans can interact with them more naturally. This could involve gesture recognition and voice controlled systems.
Advancements in telehealth
It is likely that virtual care will expand and offer more sophisticated virtual consultations, diagnostic tools and remote monitoring. This will enhance the delivery and accessibility of healthcare services.
Robotics in daily assistance
Though it may seem futuristic and like a scene out of a sci-fi movie, the reality is that robotics are likely to play a part in the daily assistance of those with disabilities or impairments. Robotic companions will likely become more commonplace, helping people with household activities and mobility.
There are likely to be advancements in brain-computer interfaces. Research in neurotechnology holds the potential for breakthroughs in direct communication between the brain and assistive devices. This would offer new avenues for people who have severe motor impairments.
Data security and ethical considerations
With all of these technological advances, it is likely that there will be a heightened focus on robust security measures to protect sensitive health information. Ethical considerations about consent and data usage will remain obvious.
Specific conditions that might be helped by assistive technologies in the future
As assistive technologies advance, their potential applications in addressing specific health conditions are expanding. Here’s a glimpse of how assistive technologies may evolve to assist in the future:
- Neurological disorders: For people with paralysis or severe motor impairments due to neurological disorders like spinal cord injuries, brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) hold promise. These may enable direct communication between the brain and external devices, allowing people to control assistive technologies with their thoughts.
- Visual impairments: Future technologies might include visual aids with augmented reality features that present real-time information about the surrounding environment, navigation guidance and object recognition, which will enhance independent mobility.
- Autism Spectrum Disorder: Social communication apps with features like emotion recognition and real-time social cues could be used to aid interpersonal communication and interactions.
- Cognitive impairments like dementia: Future assistive technologies could offer support for memory loss. They might include reminders for daily tasks, help with managing medication, and interactive programs that promote cognitive stimulation.
- Mobility challenges (e.g., arthritis): For those who have problems with mobility, future mobility aids could incorporate AI and robotics to provide adaptive support. Smart prosthetics and exoskeletons could enhance mobility and reduce the impact of conditions like arthritis.
- Diabetes management: Smart insulin delivery systems could be used to monitor blood glucose levels in real time and administer insulin doses automatically.
- Mental health conditions (e.g., depression): Future technologies could include wearable devices that track mental health and its physiological indicators. This would provide real-time data to both individuals and healthcare professionals to allow for personalised support.
As technology evolves, so too do the assistive technologies available. It is clear that assistive technology will play an increasingly vital role in health and social care, especially with the introduction of AI and robotics. These changes will mean that more people will be leading independent, healthy and fulfilling lives.