Many elderly men and women in Helsinki, Finland’s capital and largest city, face a growing dilemma as they age. It’s a dilemma shared by the city government, which provides many essential services for older citizens, such as meal delivery, transportation and mental health care. Maintaining seniors’ health, and their ability to live independently, often requires frequent and costly visits from home caregivers – sometimes multiple visits each day – but the alternative is expensive institutional care.
The problem is particularly acute in Finland. Market research firm Euromonitor Internationali reported in November 2016 that urban areas across Finland are home to some of the fastest-aging population groups in Europe – a trend that is driving up health care costs and creating a host of other economic challenges for Finnish cities. And in densely populated cities like Helsinki, the problem is getting worse, because there simply aren’t enough caregivers for the number of people who need help.
Using virtual care technology to make life better for seniors
To address these challenges, the City of Helsinki started experimenting about five years ago with an innovative, customer-centric approach to senior services. Led by Riitta Laanala, Director of Telephone and Wellbeing Services at the Helsinki City Service Centre, the City of Helsinki is using cloud-based solution technology to expand and enable senior services. The city equips seniors with a variety of assistive devices that support independent living and connect them to city services, such as GPS watches that show where seniors are located at all times, Menumat devices that enable seniors to heat prepared meals on their own, and tablets that allow nurses and other caregivers to use video conferencing to deliver virtual services that can replace some home visits.
By using virtual care to supplement physical services, nurses can devote their home visits to patients with the greatest needs – those with dementia or who need physical assistance with showering and other personal tasks. Nurses can also use the network to link several seniors and their tablets together for group activities such as physiotherapy, music recitals and discussion groups.
Transforming virtual health care data into actionable insights
Although the city continually monitored the devices the seniors were using, it had no way to analyse all the data it was gathering from those devices. Riitta Laanala brought in Innofactor, a Microsoft Certified and CityNext partner and a leading provider of cloud solutions and digital transformation in the Nordic countries. Laanala asked Innofactor to develop a solution that would bring together all the different virtual health care data streams, enable both analytics and predictive capabilities, and provide insights to help the city improve services and manage resources more effectively.
Working with Laanala and other city employees, Innofactor created a cloud-based Internet of Things solution that transfers data from network-connected devices to Microsoft Azure and the Microsoft Dynamics 365 customer-relations management (CRM) system. The solution uses Azure machine learning to analyse the data and then visualises the findings with Power BI and returns them to the CRM system. Help Desk employees can then access the findings through the dashboard and provide information to the caregivers.
Exploring new ways to enhance city services
Laanala and her colleagues continue to explore new ways to use technology to enhance city services and put their customers at the centre of care – including a new robotics project. One scenario would be to place actual hardware robots in people’s homes and program them to provide additional services. The city could also program the robots to detect abnormal behaviour patterns or events, understand that something is wrong and send an alert that the person needs help.
Many serious health problems begin with small changes that can serve as early warnings. If an elderly person begins to stumble or fall, doesn’t drink or eat as they once did, or no longer walks around their apartment in the usual way, those behavioural changes may indicate health problems ranging from mild stroke to the early stages of dementia. If caught in time and treated immediately, many conditions can be cured or prevented from getting worse. By using machine learning and data from a variety of virtual care sensors, the city can detect and respond to changes in patterns that warn of more serious problems – saving lives, reducing health care costs and bringing priceless peace of mind to many families.
Laanala and her team are also looking at software robotics, which would enable the city to automate and co-ordinate many services. When someone enters the hospital, all services are put on hold. Right now, when that person is released from the hospital at some later date, all services have to be switched back on manually. By linking the databases for the hospital, home care, security and catering and transportation services, we can automate that process to make sure all services are restored on time and nothing is overlooked.
The main goal of this customer-centric concept and all our technology work with the City of Helsinki is to support people by helping them to stay healthy and remain in their homes for as long as possible. We all want to give people a happy life in the place where they really want to be. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.