Emerging Senior Care Tech Holds Huge Promise, Poses Big Risks

Internet-connected devices such as wearable health monitors can greatly enhance senior living communities, but the devices also pose potentially grave privacy and security risks that must be addressed by care providers and other stakeholders, suggests a recently released Federal Trade Commission report.

The FTC lays out a sound approach to security in its report, and providers could benefit from considering the recommendations, experts tell Senior Housing News.

The report focuses on “devices or sensors – other than computers, smartphones, or tablets – that connect, store or transmit information with or between each other via the Internet.” The resulting system in which interconnected, non-computer “things” are capturing data has come to be known as The Internet of Things. The FTC report is based on discussions about the Internet of Things that took place at a November 2013 workshop convened by the federal agency. The document offers recommendations on what technology companies, regulators and others should be doing to protect consumers as the Internet of Things expands.

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These connected devices hold great promise for seniors in particular, the report states.

It notes that wearable health monitoring devices could enable seniors to catch problems early and avoid hospitalizations or long-term care stays. By giving caregivers access to this data, seniors could improve their outcomes and have better quality of life.

Some devices of this kind, such as activity and resident tracking technology, already are being used in senior living communities. And they’ll likely become even more common, according to Majd Alwan, Ph.D., senior vice president of technology and executive director of the LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST).

“The Internet of Things is coming to senior living,” he says.

This is a positive development, given the benefits outlined in the FTC report. But there is another side to the coin.

The devices also have the ability to capture sensitive personal information, meaning that a data breach could seriously compromise users’ privacy, the report emphasizes. And as medical devices such as insulin pumps also become Internet-connected, attackers could even physically harm people by seizing control.

Alwan supports many of the FTC’s recommendations for how technology companies should protect consumers. The report organized these recommendations in three main categories: security, data minimization, and notice and choice.

Security encompasses actions that tech companies could take to safeguard consumers, such as including password controls. Data minimization involves limiting what information a device collects and disposing of data in a safe and timely manner. Notice and choice is about consumer empowerment: Letting the user know what information a device is collecting and allowing people to change these settings.

Provider Collaboration is Key

Senior living providers might be smart to look for vendors that are adhering to the FTC best practices, but the responsibility is not entirely on the tech companies to build a safe and effective Internet of Things ecosystem, says Robert Choi, chief strategy officer for Collain Healthcare, an LG CNS company.

“Security starts not just with the tech company but the provider, and the philosophy and policies within the organization,” he says.

The FTC report is correct in stating that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to security for the Internet of Things, and that certainly holds in the senior housing sector, Choi says. This means the provider and tech vendor need to collaborate, especially given the needs of some senior living residents. For instance, giving people with cognitive impairment more power and choice might not be straightforward.

“We can help to determine the security policy and configurability by the patient population to allow the consent management piece, whether it’s the facility or family member making the choices,” Choi says. “We can help the provider with how the security matrix works out, how to configure things, but ultimately it will be at the provider’s discretion.”

Diane Hosson, STANLEY Healthcare senior director of security solutions, agrees that strong security starts with provider policies to safeguard resident privacy — and meet Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act requirements.

Ensuring vendors can meet these requirements is a first step. From there, she says providers should look for devices that meet many of the FTC-recommended security practices. Audit trail features also are important, she says.

“Be sure vendors offer something that records what changes where made, by who and when,” she says. “It will be important from a learning perspective to determine what happened if something goes wrong, and for compliance assurance.”

Health care providers are coming to the Internet of Things with a strong background in balancing new technology adoption with the need to keep patient information confidential and secure, says Hosson’s colleague Steve Elder, STANLEY Healthcare senior marketing manager.

“Health care has had to adapt to stringent privacy regulations for some time,” he tells SHN. “The concerns in the FTC report are going to be very, very familiar for health care.”

The Future is (Not Quite) Here

Given the challenges and risks presented by the Internet of Things, providers might rightly be wary of the future. But these Internet-connected devices already are transforming the way care is delivered.

Monitors that can capture daily living activities, such as when seniors visit the bathroom, enable caregivers to get a clearer sense of who might need more attention at a particular moment, says Leah Davidson, marketing director at Healthsense.

“The trend is proactive care,” Davidson adds. “It’s changing care by making better use of time and placing resources where they’re needed most critically.”

Choi cites Thrive Senior Living Legacy at Falcon Point, a Texas assisted living community where LG CNS worked to connect the electronic medical record and point-of-care systems with other devices.

“The landscape of sensors and devices within that building, whether it’s smart door locks or pendants and personal emergency response systems, we connected that all to create a richer health care data repository,” he says.

This project might be a vision of the future, but it also illustrates the challenges in achieving interconnectedness. Not all devices easily integrate with each other as of today, meaning projects like this can be costly and time-consuming, he notes. To change this status quo, providers should exert pressure.

“It’s up to providers to drive vendors to integrate data to one common platform for better analytics and real-time alerting,” he says. “But that becomes a shift in pressure to vendors to take the next step toward more transparency and standards.”

Too Soon for Legislation

Of course, providers are not the only ones who could help spur more uniform standards; Congress also could enact laws and regulations to more strictly control the Internet of Things. However, the majority of FTC commissioners concluded it is too soon for this type of legislation, citing concerns about stifling innovation.

Still, greater governmental oversight of the Internet of Things might be inevitable, Choi and Hosson say.

“I hope they don’t clamp down too hard,” Hosson says. “But what I think is important is helping the health care providers to understand at a bare minimum what they need from their vendors to provide a very protected system.”

To this end, Alwan and his colleagues at CAST are preparing a report on functional assessment and activity monitoring technologies, specifically as they pertain to senior living. He anticipates it will be released in the fall. It should offer another tool for forward-thinking operators anxious to safely embrace these devices.

And the experts agree that there is good reason to be eager for the Internet of Things to reach its full potential while respecting the user’s choice. As STANLEY’s Elder sums it up: “It’s exciting stuff.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect corrections. Previously, it described Thrive Senior Living at Legacy Point as a continuing care retirement community and referred to LG rather than LG CNS. SHN regrets these errors. 

Written by Tim Mullaney

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