Finland banks on health tech to keep seniors cared for at home longer

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HELSINKI – At Kustaankartano Senior Centre, the largest and oldest eldercare centre in the Finnish capital, a decommissioned tram takes centre stage in the courtyard. Residents who are grappling with moderate to severe dementia have been taken on “rides” to wherever they want.

On June 12, when the centre held a party to mark its 70th anniversary, there was even a “tram conductor” to make contact with the passengers and issue them specially printed tram tickets, just like in the good old days. 

More than 300 long-term residents live at the centre, which is for pensioners and unemployed persons. Many are aged 85 and above, and almost all have dementia, said the centre’s manager, Ms Sanna Numminen. They are there because they can no longer care for themselves at home.

The centre is in a quiet, park-like setting that belies its other role as a test bed for new digital products and tech solutions. These include smart flooring in the residents’ rooms that can detect falls and the use of Philips smart lighting that starts to dim in the evening to help the residents sleep better.

It is not surprising, as Helsinki is an innovation hub for health technology or health tech, which it is harnessing to enable many of its elderly population to live longer at home. Finland has built a strong public-private ecosystem that connects researchers, clinicians, entrepreneurs and corporates, benefiting not only its own people but also those elsewhere. Finnish health tech companies operate globally, and they export most of their products.

In June, its Ministry for Foreign Affairs, as well as government entities Health Capital Helsinki, Helsinki Partners, and Business Finland invited a group of reporters to Helsinki to see what it has to offer to international research organisations and companies.

Like Singapore, Finland has a small (5.5 million versus Singapore’s 5.64 million) and rapidly ageing population. Both are studying the use of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) to solve the healthcare challenges ahead.

In 2017, Finland initiated one of the world’s first national AI strategies and action plans to boost AI application. In 2022, it was ranked No. 1 on the Digital Economy and Society Index, which the European Commission uses to track the digital progress of its member states, Dr Paivi Sillanaukee, the Special Envoy for Health and Well-being at Finland’s Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, told reporters on the press trip.

Digitalisation allows more care at home, thus helping to preserve health, she said.

For instance, Finland has had e-prescriptions or prescriptions in electronic format for nearly a decade now, and patients can go to any pharmacy to collect their medicines, she said. Apart from the prescriptions, citizens can view their health data on the country’s Kanta services, Dr Sillanaukee said.

The health data can also be used for various purposes like research, which was sanctioned by an Act Finland passed on the secondary use of health and social data. To support research that utilises human blood and tissue samples, Finland also has biobank legislation since 2012, she said.

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