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Smart Care Systems Tipped to Tackle Mainland Elderly Crisis

Deficiencies in the mainland's ability to care for its growing number of elderly residents may be tackled by the rise of smart care products and establishments, according to exhibitors at the Beijing International Aging Industry Expo.

Photo: Smart senior-friendly wearable tech.
Smart senior-friendly wearable tech.
Photo: Smart senior-friendly wearable tech.
Smart senior-friendly wearable tech.

The number of mainland citizens aged 60 years or over is expected to exceed 400 million within the next 30 years. This huge demographic shift has triggered concerns over the unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable development of senior care services across the country. It is now hoped, however, that the emerging trend for "smart senior care" will ameliorate the problem and satisfy the demands of older adults with regard to their health, safety, personal comfort and lifestyle preferences.

Against such a backdrop, then, the recent Beijing International Aging Industry Expo provided a timely snapshot as to the state of the industry. In particular, the event highlighted the growing significance of smart care products and smart care institutions, while also reflecting the need for strict industry standards to be adopted.

Smart Care products: Increasingly Popular

Significantly, there seems to be a clear willingness by the elderly to embrace the convenience and reassurance offered by the digital sector. One such convert was a Mr Lu, a 65-year-old, who was examining the range of smart watches available at the expo. Explaining his interest, he said: "My daughter is always busy at work, while my wife has a heart condition and I worry about her when I am not at home. This smartwatch is easy to wear and can send out alarm signals, making it extremely useful."

The smartwatch in question was being promoted by a Mr Yu, an entrepreneur who believes the mainland smart senior care market is lagging considerably behind a number of other countries. Looking at the smartwatch sector, he maintained that, while there were other products similar to his smartwatch available abroad, they tended to have limited functionality, such as AT&T's Ever There wearable fall detector.

Photo: Senior smartwatch technology.
Senior smartwatch technology.
Photo: Senior smartwatch technology.
Senior smartwatch technology.
Photo: The Beijing International Aging Industry Expo.
The Beijing International Aging Industry Expo.
Photo: The Beijing International Aging Industry Expo.
The Beijing International Aging Industry Expo.

He said: "With the wearer's information pre-loaded and a range of functions, including emergency alarm, family interaction and fall detection, our smartwatch can also monitor such potential risks as falling or fainting. It can also automatically trace the wearer's location and send out a precise alarm to the service centre. There is no need for the wearer to press a button to summon help."

The majority of wearable devices available in the market are geared toward health monitoring, with the sector being dominated by smartwatches and wrist straps. Typically, these are priced between Rmb1,000 and Rmb2,000, with ongoing regular costs set at between Rmb30 and Rmb100, depending on usage.

As well as smartwatches, though, a number of other smart care products were also on display. Foremost among these were smart dispensers, "robot nannies" (fully automatic nursing beds), and 3D pedometers.

At present, many in the industry believe that the development of new smart devices, such as systems for monitoring the physical fitness conditions of stay-at-home seniors, devices for monitoring the physical conditions of seniors in their sleep, as well as units for the monitoring and diagnosis of dementia, have considerable market potential. It has become clearly apparent that there are radically different design requirements between products geared to the senior market and those aimed at the mainstream market. In line with this, manufacturers are advised to adopt more simplified design concepts for those items intended for the use of older adults.

Yan, a veteran of China's senior care industry, believes that, in spite of the increasing variety of smart care products in the market, there is a notable lack of a standard interface and a lack of clarity with regard to import specifications. As a result, many of the products on offer are of restricted benefit as they are incompatible with the local Internet-of-Things (IoT). He also maintains that there remains clear deficiencies in the overall industry chain.

Smart Care Institutions: A Great Future

Aside from smart products, smart care institutions are also emerging as a significant force in the sector. In light of this, one Suzhou-based IoT technology company began developing smart senior care solutions six years ago. Discussing the company's own approach, An, a senior technician with the business, said: "We were perhaps the first company in China to initiate this kind of research. Until comparatively recently, most people knew comparatively little about smart care. Today, more and more people are taking an interest in this field, while the government has also been keen to nurture its development."

In line with this, The Ministry of Civil Affairs has sponsored a number of smart care IoT demonstration projects in several senior residential complexes in Beijing, Shandong, Henan, Liaoning and three other provinces. Typically, these projects have provided seniors with electronic devices that facilitate wireless positioning, health monitoring, information reminders, and home comfort functions. So far, 17 Smart Senior Care Experimental Bases have been constructed, with the government planning to build at least 500 more over the next five years, representing a total investment in excess of Rmb10 billion.

According to An, there is a severe shortage of medical resources in China, with only six million medical personnel available to treat an elderly population in excess of 200 million. The problem is exacerbated, by the onerous requirements for repetitive examinations, as well as a serious wastage of medical resources. All of these factors have combined to make the establishment of an intelligent management system for senior care a priority.

Photo: A smart care system for stay-at-home seniors.
A smart care system for stay-at-home seniors.
Photo: A smart care system for stay-at-home seniors.
A smart care system for stay-at-home seniors.
Photo: An intelligent senior care management system.
An intelligent senior care management system.
Photo: An intelligent senior care management system.
An intelligent senior care management system.

An said: "Such a management system would need to incorporate wearable devices and personal health devices, as well as cloud computing and the establishment of a senior monitoring-alarm system, with homes, community service centres and designated hospitals forming part of a unified chain."

One such smart care-enabled private nursing home is already operating Jiangsu. According to Chen, who heads up the operation, smart care is very much the way forward, although there is, as yet, insufficient policy support to make this a reality in most small and medium-sized cities. As an additional challenge, she also believes that the use of intelligent management systems will inevitably increase the operating costs of small and medium-sized nursing homes.

Cost is also a consideration for a Mr Gao, the sales director of a large research and development company specializing in smart care systems. At present, he says, smart senior care systems come with price tags ranging from tens of thousands of yuan to hundreds of thousands of yuan, while also necessitating diversified combinations to suit the needs of a variety of communities and senior care institutions. He says that most of his company's smart care systems are purchased by large community- or publicly-run senior homes in the coastal cities of southeastern China, as well as in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region. Although a number of private institutions have also expressed interest, very few of them can afford the prohibitively high costs of complete systems, with a several them only purchasing a small number of smart devices.

Overall, it is clearly believed that IoT-based smart care will revolutionise the entire senior care sector and help meet many of the challenges currently facing the industry. Many senior figures in the sector, however, are now looking to central government to take a lead in terms of setting standards and ensuring design compatibility.

Shi Han, Special Correspondent, Beijing

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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