Digital Health

More time for personal care

The “Digital Urban Center for Aging & Health” will research future innovative solutions for the health care sector. Initiator Prof. Thomas Schildhauer speaks to //next about the digital health care system and the importance of health care robots.

Prof. Thomas Schildhauer

Prof. Thomas Schildhauer is a computer scientist, marketing expert, internet researcher and research director of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG), founder and chairman of the board of trustees of the Institute of Electronic Business (IEB), as well as managing professor and director at the Central Institute for Further Education (ZIW) University of Art in Berlin. He is also chairman of the Internet and Society Foundation and principal investigator of the Einstein Center Digital Future and the Weizenbaum Institute – The German Internet Institute. 

Prof. Schildhauer, please explain to us the idea behind the Digital Urban Center for Aging & Health ...

The basic idea for this new research center is to pool the expertise and capacities of a large number of institutes that conduct research on the subject of digitisation. Involved are the Institute for Electronic Business, the Humboldt Institut für Internet und Gesellschaft, the Einstein Center Digital Future and the Weizenbaum Institut. Nine research disciplines are represented in all of these institutes - from design to law and computer science to medicine. We want to go where people live and work. And in doing so, we want to research: How can digital opportunities affect people's lives? 

What are you working on specifically?

For example, we are considering: How should residential areas of the future be designed so that people can stay for as long as possible in the areas in which they come from, even as they grow older. Technologies could have a tangible effect here. For example, technical systems could be built into residential areas, such as sensors in the floor or control systems for building services. This could help people to longer lead active lives in their houses and apartments. 

Nevertheless, the need for care will increase significantly in the coming years as society ages. To what extent can smart technologies assist in that respect?

Today, in health care, administration is very costly in terms of time. The planning and organisation of processes could be better structured with intelligent technology. If, for example, an accident occurs in the care sector, this must be documented in detail. Presently, care workers have to do this mostly by hand via forms. Technology can significantly reduce the time required here. The care workers could have a smaller workload and would have more time to care for people. 

What do you think, what will future health care actually look like?

In an ideal scenario, care workers will work in apartments which are equipped with digital support systems. A care robot will be available to decrease workload for the care worker. Initially, the care worker themselves, will be able to obtain all information about the patient via a digital platform. Care workers, relatives, attending doctors, other service providers and residents are interconnected via a digital platform and all relevant data can be accessed. The information and knowledge currently required on the new applications and technologies in the care sector is available to the patients and the care workers in the form of learning modules and explanations. This happens via situational and adaptive, digital learning solutions, based on the existing, respective level of knowledge of the users.

The topic of robotic health is also an important area in the Tech Trend Radar from Munich Re and ERGO. How can robots help in the health sector?

Care robots can take on certain routine activities, such as reminding patients to take their medication. There are also robot systems that can help to ease the care worker’s heavy workload. And there have been first attempts with so-called social robots that can assume communicative or socially beneficial tasks. 

Has the Coronavirus pandemic accelerated things in this area or created a sharper focus in this respect?

Older people can stay in touch with their families through digital communication platforms. But there is still a great need in the health care sector to upgrade the infrastructure. For example, in many nursing homes there is only one room that is technically equipped for such video calls. We are beginning to see additional rooms equipped for the purpose of telemedicine. The residents can then speak to a doctor digitally. Many things are now being tackled with vigour, but Corona does not mean that everything will work out by itself. However, the willingness to further digitise the areas has already improved. 

How important is data protection in connection with the digitisation of the health care sector?

That is an important discussion point. In Germany, we handle data very carefully. Digital self-determination is important. We have to give people the opportunity to determine for themselves when their data is used, for what purpose and for how long. In doing so, we also need to be clear about the benefits that the use of this data has for each individual and society as a whole. But we also have to make sure that the data is handled sensibly and conscientiously and that it is not used in the wrong way. 

What does it take to drive innovative ideas for a more digital health care system?

It is clear that the health ecosystem is very complex. That is why we have to be careful when setting up a new research centre. The centre will be carefully designed in 2021. To do this, we work with organisations that want to participate. For example, we have already found cooperation partners in Diakonie or the Evangelical Bank. But we are still looking for more partners.

Interview: Benjamin Esche