United Health and AARP Are Betting There’s a Way to Stop Falls

Doctor holding a senior patiens 's hand on a walking stick - special medical care concept for Alzheimer 's syndrome.

We all know that falls are a major health risk for anyone over 65.  But just how much of a problem may surprise you.  Here are some pretty frightening numbers from the National Council on Aging:

  • One-fourth of Americans aged 65+ falls each year.
  • Every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall.
  • Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury and the most common cause of nonfatal trauma-related hospital admissions among older adults.
  • Falls result in more than 2.8 million injuries treated in emergency departments annually, including over 800,000 hospitalizations and more than 27,000 deaths.
  • In 2013, the total cost of fall injuries was $34 billion.
  • The financial toll for older adult falls is expected to increase as the population ages and may reach $67.7 billion by 2020.

But many if not most of these falls can be prevented.  Sometimes it’s a simple thing like turning on a nightlight before getting out of bed.  Sometimes it might take a gait analysis.  Now, AARP and United Healthcare are betting $65,000 that an open competition can come up with new solutions to prevent falls.

The Falls Prevention Challenge is being run by OpenIDEO, an organization that tries to apply design approaches to solving major world problems.  It is sponsored by AARP Services and UnitedHealthcare.  The Challenge is offering two top prizes, a $50,000 prize for the solution that’s most likely to be viable in the marketplace.  And a $25,000 prize for the solution that appears the most promising, whether or not it is currently ready for market, or even a pilot program.

We had a chance to speak with Sanjay Khurana, Vice President  of AARP Caregiving Products & Services, who says most of the emphasis around falls has been about falls detection and treatment, and not enough about prevention, 

 we  always looked for “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” but what about getting people to help prevent them from falling, where’s that fit for senior adults that gives them that awareness of their own strength, muscle strength, their gait, balance. If they can start training themselves to prevent falling, obviously we know the cost to the system to personal injury is very high. we’re really trying to solve for a larger population but we’re focusing on how do we empower family caregivers to take better care of their loved ones. When we do all of our research we found that the top two concerns family caregivers have and this is no surprise that number one they want Ways to monitor and maintain your loved one’s health. The second one is knowing your loved one is safe when you’re not around. And then we dig deeper into the latter it comes down to around fall prevention and there’s a heightened Awareness both in family caregivers and in loved ones that they know they want to stay safe in the home because they value independent living but really we as a market have not provided them the tools to really give them this empowerment approach. Here’s how you really discover your gait and your balance and your home hazards and you really change your behavior so you can improve your lifestyle and continue to have an improved quality of life.

Khurana is hoping the Falls Prevention Challenge will bring more people into the mix to find solutions,

We think that for us the challenge is to bring a cross-section of the industry from designers to entrepreneurs to researchers to technicians to clinicians and kind of bring this interdisciplinary together to start a dialogue, start bringing some of this innovation to market. Our goal is to really help shepherd some of this thought process to cross-sectional solutions in the market.

Technology or Not?

Khurana says the popularity of fitness trackers, and their ability to be reconfigured for gait analysis is just one example of how technology may be used to help prevent falls,

I think there’s going to be a natural evolution where the holy grail is going to be prediction but the basic baby steps first are to really leverage the power of the technology, drive better awareness because what activity trackers have done for healthy living – now we can dispute whether they’re effective or not – but has happened in the activity tracker space there has been a benchmark around how do you measure your activity through steps. Now I’m not saying whether that’s right or wrong so I look at it as what are steps to healthy living, what is the equivalent for this population to prevent falls. What is that gait metrics that balance metrics where people go I know where I stand in my balance and gait so we eventually want to get to that point.

He notes that the Centers for Disease Control already has a program that’s not technology based to help anticipate falls,

It’s a very simple self-reported test that a lot of clinicians and occupational therapists use. It’s a very simple assessment of your risk profile. And these are evidence based tests that are performed in clinical settings. Some of those there is a lot of good science and evidence-based protocols out there in the community that need to come out into the commercial side. We really think there’s a great way to leverage the science that’s out there and marry it with some of the technology.

And while some of those formulating the Falls Prevention Challenge are expecting a technology solution, AARP’s Khurana says it may be something quite different,

 One of the things we’ve recognized is that technology is not the be all end all for a lot of solutions. Very often we find utilities that are the education and awareness where technology may play a role, may not. We really would like to lead this a little more wide open. I think form an innovation point of view from a market point of view we don’t want to be so prescriptive that we leave out simple solutions that may not use technology so we’re going to leave that a little bit open ended. 

He cites a story about how a simple observation helped one Parkinson’s patient without using any technology,

There was this product designer and she had a grandfather who had Parkinson’s. When you have Parkinson’s you have limited mobility because of tremor and her grandfather would use a walker and while walking around the house would have difficulty with speed because of tremor. But she found that every time he walked down the stairs he would have no problem. So there was something about the motion of walking down the stairs that made him walk differently and that’s when the lightbulb went off and what she did was print a mosaic of stairs and she glued it to the floor and now the grandfather uses it to walk with the walker and his walking is much improved. So this is where there’s no technology but it’s really designed thinking.

One of the issues that Falls Prevention Challenge hopes to deal with is getting solutions that can scale to the entire market.  Khurana points out that there’s plenty of information out there on simple utilitarian steps that can help prevent falls, but it’s not being widely disseminated,

 CDC has some great information on their website for some of the awareness utilities as well as NIH has something called Go For Life that has simple exercises for strength, balance, and endurance. I was very surprised. Actually a lot of the community centers and senior living facilities actually have a hard copy of that book. As a matter of fact my mother gave it to me she said you should look at this and I said wow that’s exactly the kind of awareness we’re looking to build and bring to caregivers,,,that’s exactly the purpose of this exercise is to bring awareness around simple utility but also drive awareness around at scale. It’s good to have this information and booklets in places but how do you get them to that scale. That’s really the purpose of the caregiving initiative that we have at AARP is to really drive awareness to practical solutions and resources for caregivers and that’s the intent of this.

Results of the Falls Prevention Challenge will be announced in June.  Click here for more information about the Challenge

You can see the Falls Prevention section of the Centers For Disease Control website here:

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Gary is an award-winning journalist who has been covering technology since IBM introduced its first personal computer in 1981. Beginning at NBC News, then at ABC News, Ziff Davis, CNN, and Fox Business Network. Kaye has a history of “firsts”. He was the first to bring a network television crew to the Comdex Computer Show, the first technology producer on ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, the first to produce live coverage of the Solar Power International Conference, and the creator of the Fox Business Network signature series, “Three Days In The Valley”. Along the way he created the History Channel Multimedia Classroom. He has been a contributor to both AARP’s website and to AARP radio, as well as to a handful of other print and web-based publications where he specializes in issues involving boomers/seniors and technology. He has been a featured speaker and moderator at industry events such as the Silvers Summit and Lifelong Tech Conferences at CES, the M-Enabling Health Summit, and the What’s Next Baby Boomer Business Summit. His column, “Technology Through Our Eyes” appears in half a dozen newspapers and websites across the country.