Technology has a great capacity to keep older Australians in their homes longer – which is what most of them want – but a balance with the need for human connection is crucial, ECH chief executive David Panter says.

Half a year on from the company’s acquisition of Melbourne tech start-up Billy, Adelaide-based ECH says it is looking at the development of social connection apps, with Dr Panter saying the COVID-19 crisis has put a sharp focus on issues such as social isolation and anxiety.

ECH initially invested $5m into Billy, developed by siblings Tim and Melissa McDougall in 2018.

The start-up, which launched two years earlier and was also backed by a $1m seed funding round led by health insurer HCF, uses discrete sensors in a person’s home which are used to build up a profile of their daily activities.

A change in routines, such as a fall in the number of times the refrigerator is opened or the toilet is used, for example, is flagged to family members or others who have been granted access to the app.

Room temperatures are also monitored, and while the system, provided on a subscription basis to users, is not a replacement for a medical alert system, it provides peace of mind to family members and helps people stay in independent living longer, Dr Panter says.

The Billy team joined ECH as part of the acquisition, and the aged-care provider now has a strong tech capability.

Dr Panter, also formerly chief executive of the Central Adelaide Local Health Network, which covers Adelaide’s major hospitals such as the Royal Adelaide Hospital, said that as a not-for profit, ECH was not intending to evolve into a tech company but would look to continue to innovate in its field.

“ECH is determined to make real change in the industry through the investment of technology, as we believe it is a great enabler in helping us to deliver on our purpose to support older people to remain living confidently and independently at home for as long as they wish,’’ he said.

“When used correctly, technology can create positive change.

“We have seen recently during COVID-19 restrictions how technology can be used to support older people and help them remain connected.

“We have some strong in-house digital skills and where possible will look to build on our technology portfolio internally.

“For example, we are currently looking at the development of social connections apps as we have seen the effects of COVID-19 has led to increased social isolation and anxiety.’’

Dr Panter said there were positive financial and health outcomes associated with keeping people living healthily and happily in their homes, and in returning them to their homes after surgery or other interventions which required hospitalisation or more support.

The monitoring of routines offered by Billy also enabled healthcare providers and aged care professionals to make early health interventions.

“Billy enables families to have clear visibility that daily routines of their loved ones are being undertaken through a simple-to-use app,’’ Dr Panter said.

“The monitoring of daily tasks helps aged-care professionals to detect changes in behaviour over time which can enable preventive interventions to occur, helping to reduce overall decline in an individual’s wellbeing.

“It is the ability to be able to apply preventive interventions that will enable care providers to drive better outcomes for their clients.’’

While ECH was actively looking to use new technologies where appropriate, Dr Panter said social connection and human interaction could not be replaced.

“Our years of experience have shown us how important social connection is for older people,’’ he said.

“While there is an expectation of greater use of technology there is also a real demand for human interaction. So, while we strongly believe technology will play a key role in the future it will never replace human contact.

“Getting the balance right is when everyone, clients, families and providers, will really benefit.’’

Posted: January 11, 2021