Intel and the Irish government are building the largest research initiative in the world dedicated to developing healthcare technologies specifically for the elderly.
Combined, Intel and the Industrial Development Agency Ireland, a government organisation that seeks investments from overseas companies, are contributing US$30 million (NZ$44 million) over three years to the initiative, which will include collaboration with three Irish universities and 50 to 100 new researchers at Intel in Dublin.
The researchers aim to develop technologies that can allow the elderly to continue to live independently and at home. They’ll focus on technologies that can improve social health and community engagement for older people, detect and prevent falls in the home, and help people with memory loss to remain independent.
Some of the researchers, who will come from a variety of disciplines including ethnography and biomedical engineering, will begin by living with families around the world to study how older people interact with family members, doctors and healthcare systems.
Some of the technologies that could be commercialised and that Intel has already begun to work on include home sensor networks that can detect whether an elderly person has fallen or left the oven on and alert family members. A different type of sensor network that attaches to a person’s body can study the user’s gait to determine whether the person is becoming prone to potentially debilitating falls.
Commercialised products could use low-cost components and be paid for the same way that healthcare products are paid for today, says Eric Dishman, global director of Intel’s health research and innovation group.
He offers an example of a tool Intel worked on designed for Alzheimer’s patients. Using primarily off-the-shelf technologies, Intel built a “caller ID on steroids” that displayed a photograph of the caller plus additional information such as people the caller and the end user know in common and the last time the caller and the end user spoke, he says. While the photograph didn’t always help the end user remember the identity of the caller, the additional information sometimes did, he says.The centre plans to actively share its information with other researchers and companies around the globe in hopes of attracting input from those organisations. In two to three years, the organisation plans to begin publishing clinical studies and case studies about its research.
While Ireland has a reputation for an educated work force that can staff such research institutions, it has a couple of other factors working against it as a location for this Intel centre. For example, Ireland has one of the youngest populations in the region so doesn’t represent the norm in Europe, where Intel expects that one third of the population will be over 65 years of age in 2050. Ireland also has a very poor healthcare record. A 2006 report on healthcare in Europe executed by researcher Health Consumer Powerhouse ranked Ireland 25 out of 26 European nations, in front of only Lithuania. The study examined factors such as waiting times and outcome of treatment.
The Irish government has been focusing over the past couple of years on trying to attract research and development operations, to pick up the slack from manufacturing companies moving to cheaper locales. The new centre is an example of the type of investment the government is looking to attract.