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Majority of GPs believe assistive technology could help dementia patients

Solutions such as AI, smart glasses and augmented reality could help lift the quality of life for patients, according to a new survey.

By Sophia Waterfield

Two-thirds of doctors in the UK have said they want to prescribe technology to their dementia patients to help them remain independent and live at home, signalling an appetite for digital transformation in health and social care, a new study says. However, significant barriers remain for patients to get their hands on these potentially life-changing technologies.

Female Doctor Checking on Elderly Patient Lying in Hospital Bed Doing Therapy Via VR Technology. Friendly Doctor Helping Senior Woman Receive Therapy Using Virtual Reality Headset.
Advanced assistive technologies could help dementia patients live longer independent lives, say UK GPs. (Photo by Newman Studio/Shutterstock)

Conducted by the Longitude Prize on Dementia and funded by the Alzheimer’s Society and Innovate UK, the study polled over 1,000 GPs, who were asked questions about their desire to use technology to help people and their families affected by dementia.

Nearly nine in ten (88%) doctors said that people living with dementia who live in their own homes will live more fulfilling lives. The poll found that over three-quarters (77%) of GPs believed it would also help people to live longer. Assistive technologies are one way to potentially enable this.

Dame Louise Robinson, GP and professor of primary care and ageing at Newcastle University, said that it’s becoming the norm for GPs to prescribe non-drug interventions for patients with long-term conditions and that technology could play its part. “Technology, especially if it is used as part of a package of person-centred support, can help people with dementia live at home longer which is the ultimate goal,” she said.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, there are approximately 900,000 people in the UK living with dementia, and this number could rise to 1.6 million by 2040. This year alone, 209,600 people will develop dementia, which the charity says equates to one every three minutes. Of people who live in care homes, 70% have dementia or severe challenges with their memory.

GPs voice frustration that dementia patients don’t receive enough support in their homes

The study also highlighted the disappointment GPs feel over their patients not receiving support at home. Out of the 1,000 doctors, 83% said they felt this way.

What’s more, 86% said there are some existing technologies designed for people with dementia, but most of them focus on monitoring a person rather than supporting them to live independently for longer.

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“It’s encouraging that many GPs join us in seeing the huge potential that tech could bring for the 900,000 people in the UK living with dementia,” said Kate Lee, CEO of the Alzheimer’s Society. “Dementia is a progressive condition set to affect one in three people born today, so we must think more broadly about how to end the devastation it causes, by helping people manage their symptoms and stay independent for longer.

But she continued that while it was “exciting” for patients to have new treatments to slow the progress of the disease in the future, there needed to be an urgent push forward to help those living with dementia now: “We believe tech involving people with dementia, for people with dementia, can be a key way of doing this,” she added.

What are examples of assistive technologies that could help dementia patients?

The majority of GPs (76%) surveyed worried that their patients struggled with anxiety or fear of becoming lost and ended up trapped in their homes.

The polled doctors said that responsive technologies such as an intuitive app to help patients navigate their communities or technology that reminds people to take medication would help. Just under half of their patients (49%) already used technology in their everyday lives.

Smart glasses could also be another way to help dementia patients. These solutions have been created as part of the Longitude Prize on Dementia – a £4.42m prize to help create technology-based tools that are co-created with people living with early-stage dementia.

In June, 24 semi-finalists developed assistive technologies and received grants of £80,000. Their solutions included virtual reality devices, smart glasses to tell a user what they are looking at, technology to help fill in broken speech and an augmented reality navigation app and music therapy that reacts to an individual’s biorhythms.

George MacGinnis, healthy ageing challenge director, Innovate UK said that AI could also be deployed to help patients as it could adapt to the changing needs of people living with dementia without breaking the bank: “This poll shows the vast majority of family doctors want to prescribe them to their patients with dementia.”

Is the government doing more to bring assistive technologies into health and social care?

In the summer, the UK government announced its intentions to transform the country’s health and social care.

Through plans published by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), it said data would be brought together into an app to enable patients to view and manage hospital appointments, have virtual consultations and see notifications from their GPs. But when it came to advanced technologies such as IoT or AI, there were no clear plans launched.

Prior to the launch, the House of Commons Health and Care Select Committee also revealed that the NHS’ digitalisation progress had been deemed “inadequate” across all government-made commitments. In its report, the panel said that there was a need for digitisation across both health and social care as well as making their services more integrated.

The TEC Action Alliance, involved in over 30 care organisations such as Care England, published research this year which showed that only 18% of patients used telecare or telehealth services. Its report, Technology-Enabled Lives: Delivering Outcomes for People and Providersexamined barriers to the widespread adoption of telehealth services and products and found that there are issues in shaping digital care around people’s needs and replicating services at scale.

Read more: WHO urges caution over use of generative AI in healthcare

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