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Health + Tech | Using technology to cope with isolation, loneliness

Published:Sunday | January 16, 2022 | 12:07 AM
Doug Halsall
Doug Halsall
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COVID-19 has immensely changed the way we do things in almost every sector, healthcare included.

Humans are social beings and so it is understandably difficult to be isolated from others. Since the beginning of the pandemic, one of the biggest challenges faced by families is the inability to visit loved ones who are ill in hospital. It can be a very lonely journey if one is ill with little or no familial support, which could negatively affect recovery. There have been reports of mental health issues increasing during lockdown.

The United States-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regards loneliness and social isolation as public health threats that can put especially “adults at risk of dementia and other serious medical conditions”. The agency defines loneliness as “the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact” and social isolation as “a lack of social connections”.

Some of the health risks associated with loneliness and social isolation include premature death, dementia, heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety and suicide, according to the CDC. Within the wider society, there are several organisations with which persons can connect to get a feeling of community and reduce their risk of loneliness and social isolation. However, when one has to be admitted to hospital in a time when visits are restricted, more creative methods have to be used to combat these issues.

Most patients in a hospital setting look forward to visiting hours when their family and friends can see them. Now, our hospitals are either close to capacity or completely at capacity with the number of patients they can accommodate because of COVID-19. Given the extent to which COVID is contagious, limited contact has to be established to reduce the likelihood of spread.

This is where technology can help. There are several ways in which technology can be used, depending on the circumstances, to reduce feelings of loneliness and social isolation in adults, in a hospital setting.

Robotics have been long used in healthcare to assist with certain tasks. One of the highlighted uses of robotics during the pandemic has been for infection control. However, robots have also been used as companions for persons as a way to combat loneliness and social isolation. An Israeli start-up called Intuition Robotics used artificial intelligence (AI) to develop a robot it calls ElliQ and describes it as an “empathetic care companion … that establishes long-term relationships with older adult users”.

Another company out of Japan called AIST has developed a “therapeutic robot” called PARO, which is a “biofeedback” device that looks like a baby seal. The robot is able to perceive the users’ environment and recognise voices and words. The company says it has been in use in Japan and throughout Europe since 2003 and has successfully reduced patient stress and improved socialisation, relaxation and motivation, among other things.

Using virtual reality devices is another way in which families and friends can connect to loved ones who have been hospitalised. Virtual reality offers a 3D visual representation of a process or event, allowing the user complete immersion while locking out the real world. The virtual reality market is large and growing. Fortune Business Insights, in a report titled Virtual Reality in Healthcare Market, indicated that “the global virtual reality in healthcare market size stood at USD 1.56 Billion in 2018 and is expected to reach US$30.4 billion by 2026, exhibiting a compound annual growth rate of 42.4 per cent”.

In the context of reducing social isolation and loneliness, virtual reality can enable families to connect by using these devices from several locations. An app called Alcove – dubbed the “first family-oriented virtual reality app” – is a virtual home that allows families to be together in the virtual environment from any location. This can be customised to their needs.

Another simple and easily implementable method is to outfit each patient bed with an Internet connected tablet device so that patients are easily able to navigate social sites, have video calls with family and friends, and access entertainment while they are admitted. They could also use it for services within the hospital. This, along with other similar technology, could go a far way in combating loneliness and social isolation and, therefore, improve patients’ overall health.

Doug Halsall is chairman and CEO of Advanced Integrated Systems. Send feedback to doug.halsall@gmail.com.