Using tech to connect with the elderly for better care at home

Using tech to connect with the elderly for better care at home

Connected Health, which aims to empower older people to stay in their own homes, has grown its workforce to over 1,000 since the start of the pandemic.

Author: Emmet Ryan

Picture: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

Ryan Williams, Director at Connected Health: ‘We think about what older people can get that’s not physical care that can help them stay independent’.

With its focus on providing home support services, particularly to the elderly, Connected Health does not sound like an obvious tech business.

But in a sign that the definition of a tech business has truly broadened, the Belfast-based company has become one of the most aggressive hirers among all tech companies on the island of Ireland in the last year.

Ryan Williams, director at Connected Health, said the bulk of its 1,000-plus staff had been hired since the pandemic started. And the company, which was set up in 2012, plans to hit at least 2,000 employees by the end of the year.

Connectivity has become critical in the provision of home care services since the Covid-19 crisis began, and Connected Health has used the technology it developed to maintain adequate care across its market in Ireland and Britain.

“Covid-19 has been interesting and challenging. We found over the last 12 months that because of all the sad and negative pieces around residential and nursing home care, we haven’t been able to get our voices out there about how home care is progressing and changing,” Williams told the Business Post.

“We did research with EY to show that credibility around home care and to start that policy conversation around it.”

Williams takes an approach of empowering the elderly to feel comfortable and cared for at home with the aid of tech tools provided by his business.

“The technology around video conferencing has become really simple to use. We have one product, called Carebox, in the test phase that uses an older person’s TV. They are more familiar with the TV than touchscreens, my dad has bounced his phone off the wall more times than I can count,” Williams said.

“We asked the clients what they use and what they like. The box plugs into the TV and works simply. There are check-ins four or five times a day with that older person asking about how much they have walked, drank, how they slept, and we compile the data to see how they are doing.”

Williams is excited about what his company’s solutions can provide to the home care market, but he is also quite self-deprecating in his manner, even when talking about some of the innovations made by his business.

“Our care navigators talk to older people, a radical concept, and find out what they need. It’s face to face, it’s a conversation that’s friendly and not a series of tick-box questions,” he said.

“We think about what older people can get that’s not physical care that can help them stay independent. We have put virtual technology in place to allow that.”

Williams’s own route to Connected Health was, like the firm’s move into being technology-led, not the most obvious.

“I’m a failed lawyer. I studied law at Queen’s University, did a masters, then decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I went into community development and then the private sector, most of what I have done has been in recruitment,” Williams said.

“It’s quite similar to care. The biggest challenge over the last 20 years has been finding the people to provide the care. If you get talent right in care, it’s the building block for the technology and training.”

That focus on sourcing talent first has helped the company expand rapidly during the past year.

“We grew by almost 200 per cent last year. All of our recruitment and training is online so we were able to keep hiring while the rest of the sector was struggling during Covid-19. With people being furloughed, many saw it as an opening to move into health and found us,” he said.

“In the South, where finding people is difficult, it freed up the market a bit, but equally we were also providing help on the ground. We had Covid-19-dedicated teams to prevent cross-infection and, so far, it has worked well across the pandemic.”

Connected Health treats Northern Ireland, the Republic and Britain as three separate entities reporting back to the mothership in Belfast. This, along with a few other habits it had already developed, meant it hasn’t been rocked by Brexit.

“We have legal entities in all three jurisdictions. We haven’t noticed a major issue yet. The North isn’t particularly reliant on EU nationals, the Republic has more diversity, and we were small in Britain when the pandemic started,” Williams said.

“We’re benefiting from Brexit and Covid-19 with all the worries about the financial impact in Britain. We know from a recruitment perspective that the Republic will recover faster while the North will be the North, it will hang on to whatever shirt tail it can.”

The nature of Connected Health’s business structure means it only has minor issues to deal with around data management and with a few carers who operate in both the North and South.

That absence of distraction means Williams can focus on adding products to the Connected Health portfolio to ensure the business remains attractive to clients in a post-pandemic world. One of these is airCeption, which is currently in the beta phase and helps manage incontinence incidents.

“If you have an incontinence incident at 9.30am and your care visit was at 8.30am, do you have to stay like that until lunchtime? To me that’s an issue around dignity, never mind the medical issues around infection,” Williams said.

“With airCeption it essentially detects a molecule change in the air and it sends an alert to a team to deal with it. It’s an additional element to the menu of care, we should be rolling it out in the third quarter of this year.”

Connected Health develops its technology quickly by trialling it in small communities, understanding the basic needs of individuals, and then scaling it across its wider market.

“We do everything in small blocks and pilots. We are running one in rural Lisburn where we develop tailored plans for the older person. It encourages the older person to engage and tracks their engagement,” said Williams.

“We’re working with another company on a little bracelet that tracks when they are sleeping or leave the house, which is particularly important with dementia. It’s discreet, it looks like a small Fitbit.”

As the business continues to grow, Williams hopes it doesn’t just mean a better bottom line. He wants to inspire other companies in the sector along with government-led healthcare providers over the next year.

“I hope we’ll have brought partial evolution, possibly revolution, as to what home care means across the three jurisdictions. I’d also like the company to be twice the size it is and I think we’ll do that.”