Long interested in robotics and the use of technology to improve society and reduce health care costs, Alwan, whose mother, at age 84, lives in Damascus, Syria, was appointed director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST) in May.
Washington, D.C.-based CAST, which is part of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, is a coalition of technology companies, eldercare providers and universities that collaborate to develop new technologies to make health care better for elderly people.
Alwan, who received his Ph.D. in intelligent assistive robotics in 1997 from the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of London, will moderate a panel Monday afternoon during the fourth annual Healthcare Unbound conference in San Francisco. Titled "The Future of Aging Services--Provider Business Models," the panel is part of a newly launched "Aging Services Track" at the conference, which focuses on the convergence of consumer and health care technologies.
CNET News.com spoke with Alwan recently about CAST, the future of eldercare technologies and what it will take to make them pervasive in society.
Q: What is the purpose of CAST?
Alwan: The end game is to prove that technologies would allow seniors to have a better aging experience in a place they call home. For example, the technologies would allow them to age in a place of choice, whether it's their home or an apartment within a continued retirement community or an assisted-living facility. We have to acknowledge that transition to some form of long-term care setting may, at the end of the day, be inevitable. Technology can play a role in all of these settings, but the end goal is the aging experience. And at the other end, the reduction of cost to whoever is going to bear the cost.
You left the University of Virgina's Medical Automation Research Center and joined CAST as its new director in May. Was it due to the exposure you received to CAST, as the Medical Automation Research Center's volunteer representative to that group?
Alwan: They were looking for a director and I had always been actively involved in CAST. I had some ideas to take CAST to the next level and found that this position might be a good fit, not only for my interest (in biomedical applications and robotics), but also for my aspirations for CAST.
What are your goals for CAST, and how would you describe your role there?
Alwan: CAST plays the role of bringing the stakeholders--tech companies, eldercare providers and university researchers--together at the same table to look at the same issue from different perspectives, and to partner on designing and evaluating technologies in the field and in living laboratories.
So far, CAST has played this role somewhat passively. CAST has not been actively involved in matchmaking, in connecting a specific company to a specific eldercare provider based on the need of each party, and has not played an active role in designing the pilot evaluation studies or in helping to design the pilot evaluation studies to ensure that the field evaluations provide results that can be used to advance the goals of CAST and, eventually, drive policy changes that would remove the barriers that could be in the way of the fast adoption and proliferation of the technology--and show the public, seniors, and public officials that these technologies not only work, but they also deliver a value proposition.
They also can actually improve the quality of life of the seniors who are using them, can actually reduce the caregivers' burdens, reduce caregiver strain for informal caregivers and improve professional caregivers' efficiencies.
Given the matchmaking you hope to do with your members, do you have enough tech companies to go around?
Alwan: There are a sufficient number of technology companies, and the offer to assist in these field evaluations is primarily targeted at the eldercare providers. It is necessary to require their engagement in the first place.
We do not limit our assistance to products of companies who are members of CAST. So, an eldercare provider could be thinking of adopting a product of a small company that is not yet a member of CAST, and we are open to that. We are not limiting that engagement to only the tech companies who are members of CAST.
What kind of tech companies do you count as your members? Largely hardware companies?
Alwan: There are small system integrators who can help you integrate a piece of hardware from company A with a piece of software from company B. There are software companies primarily looking at electronic medical records and financial software companies, and software for tracking elder care, and so on and so forth.
When you look at the tech industry overall, what percentage do you think are involved in eldercare technologies?
Alwan: I would say more than 10 percent. Probably 20 to 25 percent of the tech companies have their eyes on the medical application, medical field and the eldercare field. Whether they are actually actively involved in publicizing their work and their interests is a different matter. Probably out of this 20 to 25 percent, again about 15 percent are looking at the eldercare segments, but, unfortunately, not all of them are part of CAST.
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