Aging and ICTs

Posted on January 13, 2010  /  1 Comments

I’ve been thinking about demography a lot these days, particularly about the demographic dividend that Bangladesh is about to harvest (if right policies are in place) and Sr Lanka has partially harvested (and wasted). Actually, I’ve been thinking more about the demographic time bomb that is ticking in the form of a massive group of elderly retirees who will drag down not only their children in the working-age group but the entire economy.

Sri Lanka’s current/projected life expectancy at birth

2006-11 Male 69.93 Female 75.70
2041-46 Male 73.60 Female 80.45
2051-56 Male 74.52 Female 81.63

Source Professor Indralal de Silva, U Colombo

Rapid economic growth (I recall the debates about whether 10% growth was feasible in 2004-05) is of course the necessary condition for a robust solution. The sufficient condition is a well designed healthcare system that can look after the needs of a large aging population (those over 64 will, as a group, be almost the same size as the entire working population by 2041 in Sri Lanka). Healthcare costs money, lots. And its costs go up every year, with people living longer (and thus having more need for healthcare in more complex forms), tests becoming more advanced and more expensive, and medicines as well. So simply having a healthcare system is not enough; one must have one that reduces costs and creates the right incentives.

It looks like ICTs can contribute, according to this report on healthcare in Denmark.

He clipped an electronic pulse reader to his finger. It logged his reading and sent it to his doctor. Mr. Danstrup can also look up his personal health record online. His prescriptions are paperless — his doctors enters them electronically, and any pharmacy in the country can pull them up. Any time he wants to get in touch with his primary care doctor, he sends an e-mail message.

All of this is possible because Mr. Danstrup lives in Denmark, a country that began embracing electronic health records and other health care information technology a decade ago. Today, virtually all primary care physicians and nearly half of the hospitals use electronic records, and officials are trying to encourage more “telemedicine” projects like the one started at Frederiksberg by Dr. Klaus Phanareth, a physician there.

Several studies, including one to be published later this month by the Commonwealth Fund, conclude that the Danish information system is the most efficient in the world, saving doctors an average of 50 minutes a day in administrative work. And a 2008 report from the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society estimated that electronic record keeping saved Denmark’s health system as much as $120 million a year.

Of course, I would not bet on costs coming down immediately. But in the long run they will. And for sure, anything beats waiting in doctor’s offices.

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