Wearables, Voice Assistants Nearly Ready for Primetime in Senior Living

Wearable technology, voice-activated assistants and “smart” devices are on the verge of dominating the senior living landscape, and providers must be prepared to navigate the risks and opportunities that lie therein.

These cutting-edge technologies are promising, but providers are still determining how to implement them most effectively, according to executives with some of the largest providers in the nation, who spoke during a March 14 webinar hosted by CDW Healthcare and Senior Housing News.

At the same time, new technologies bring with them risks that can put senior living companies in jeopardy of data breaches.

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Wearables, smart tech on the cusp

From the Apple Watch to the Fitbit, wearable technology, or “wearables,” are becoming more and more commonplace in American society. The number of wearable devices is expected to jump to roughly 504 million in 2021, up from 260 million in 2016, according to research and advisory company Gartner.

Waltham, Massachusetts-based Benchmark Senior Living first examined the viability of wearables about two years ago, according to Moulay Elalamy, vice president of information technology for the provider, which operates 57 communities in seven states.

In the end, Benchmark saw wearables as a “building block more than a destination,” he said. But, it’s a question of when, not if, wearables see widespread adoption among seniors.

Marc Gaber, Vice President and CIO of Des Moines, Iowa-based LCS, agreed with that assessment. LCS has 133 managed communities in 32 states.

“When I look at wearables, I think it’s still in the discovery phase,” Gaber said. “The question is, what problem are we trying to solve? It continues to evolve. How does it play into the larger puzzle?”

Smart devices and voice-activated assistants such as Alexa, Siri and Google Home are also increasingly cropping up in senior living communities. As with wearables, it seems certain the technology will one day play a transformative role in the industry—that day just hasn’t yet arrived.

“They are definitely ready for primetime,” said Greg Swope, CIO and Chief Information Security Officer with Newton, Massachusetts-based Five Star Senior Living (Nasdaq: FVE). “The question is how it will fit into senior living.”

Five Star has 280 communities in 28 states, and also offers a range of ancillary services.

Though most smart devices—lights, locks, televisions, tablets and phones—currently exist to enhance residents’ quality of life, they could play a role in clinical data collection, too. For example, smart toilets might soon track how many times a resident gets up to use the bathroom at night.

“The challenge that the market has today is that it’s very data-collection driven,” Swope said. “The question is, what will our staff do with that data? The reality is, we don’t have the wherewithal to tackle that kind of function.”

Artificial intelligence could help fill that gap—and even help a provider avoid the labor crunch by filling roles traditionally filled by humans.

Still, there are some hurdles to widespread adoption, such as the availability of campus-wide Wi-Fi and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) rules. And any future tech solution must be seamlessly embedded into a resident’s day-to-day experience.

“It has to be part of the daily activities,” Elalamy said. “It also has to be transparent and not necessarily something where they have to realize they’re using it.”

Phishing at the forefront

Senior living providers routinely store and process sensitive medical and payment information, making them prime targets for hackers and other data thieves. One of the most common weak points in many senior living providers lies not in the firewall or email filters, but rather, in the employees’ and residents’ personal habits.

Phishing emails—fake messages meant to fool someone into giving up passwords or other bits of personal information—remain one of the largest threats to the industry, Swope explained.

“The biggest threat to an organization these days is not somebody breaking in through your firewall, but someboduy getting credentials through tricking end users,” he said.

As with any company, senior living providers should educate and test their employees on identifying phishing emails. Some security tools can even send faux-phishing messages meant to determine which employees are at greatest risk of a data breach, Swope noted.

Residents, too, can benefit from some extra computer security training. In particular, senior living providers could educate older adults on some best practices, such as when to give out your credit card information or input your password while buying something online.

“There’s definitely a good opportunity to better educate our residents on IT security in the future,” Swope said.

Written by Tim Regan

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