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Council question: Development and popularisation of gerontechnology products
2017-06-28

Following is a question by the Hon Charles Mok and a written reply by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Mr Stephen Sui, in the Legislative Council today (June 28):

Question:

With an increasingly ageing population, issues relating to caring and nursing the elderly have aroused public concerns.  By applying technologies such as Internet technologies, robotics, big data analytics and cloud computing, gerontechnologists may research and develop innovative products based on the individual needs of the elderly, to help the elderly address the problems they encountered in the areas of independent living, medical check-ups, home safety, rehabilitation and healthcare, etc., thereby improving the living quality of the elderly and their ability to take care of themselves.  Such products may also assist residential care homes for the elderly in carrying out their professional nursing work, and may, in the long run, reduce public healthcare expenditure.  However, the results of a recent study have shown that the community’s awareness of the importance of gerontechnology is inadequate, with gerontechnology products being perceived merely as assistive tools rather than core products for ageing in place.  Moreover, gerontechnology products are subject to the limitations of outdated regulatory regime and government policies, resulting in such products not being put to wide use.  Regarding the development and popularisation of gerontechnology products, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) whether the authorities have conducted an integrated study on: the trend of ageing population, the demand for care and nursing services for the elderly, the trend of the relevant public healthcare expenditure, and the areas to which innovative technologies can be applied for addressing the challenges posed by an ageing population; if so, of the details;

(2) as the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer has implemented the Information and Communications Technology Outreach Programme for the Elderly to provide subsidies for non-profit making (NPM) organisations to teach the elderly to use computers and mobile devices, so as to enhance their knowledge of and interests in the use of information and communications technology, and has launched the Funding Scheme for the Development of Digital Inclusion Mobile Applications to provide subsidies for NPM organisations to research and develop mobile applications that bring convenience to the daily living of the elderly, of the names of the organisations currently subsidised under the two initiatives and the titles of the projects launched; in respect of each of the subsidised projects, (i) the amount of subsidy, (ii) the frequency of holding activities, and (iii) the number of the elderly served; whether the authorities have assessed the effectiveness of the two initiatives; if so, of the details;

(3) of the policies currently put in place by the authorities to encourage institutions such as public and private residential care homes for the elderly and day care centres to make use of gerontechnology products to assist in caring and nursing the elderly, and whether the authorities have reviewed the effectiveness of such policies;

(4) whether the authorities have plans to promote the wide use of gerontechnology; if so, of the details, including whether they will (i) expand the scope of the Elderly Health Care Voucher Scheme to subsidise the elderly to purchase gerontechnology products, and (ii) provide additional resources to social welfare organisations to encourage their purchase of gerontechnology products for taking care of the elderly;

(5) of the measures currently put in place by the authorities to encourage the innovation and technology industry to research and develop more gerontechnology products, services and solutions; whether the authorities have studied ways to encourage the collaboration between universities, research and development institutions, non-governmental organisations and government departments for the provision of a platform for testing gerontechnology products, and for the promotion of the research and development as well as the commercialisation of such products; and

(6) whether the authorities have plans to assign a government department or set up a dedicated working group to take charge of the review and revamp of the regulatory regime and government policies in relation to gerontechnology products, so as to facilitate the wide use of gerontechnology?
Reply:

President,

Hong Kong is facing the dual challenges of an ageing population and a shrinking labour force, and the demand for elderly services has also been increasing.  Elderly care has all along been at the top of the Government’s agenda with a continuous increase in resources put in this area: the recurrent expenditure on elderly services is around $7.8 billion for this financial year, marking an increase by over 55 per cent from around $5 billion five years ago.  On the other hand, there is a rapid development of technology.  Gerontechnology is a combination of elderly services and innovative technology.  It can help improve the lives of elderly persons as well as reduce the burden and stress of carers and care staff.  Gerontechnology is one of the important strategies for addressing the ageing society.

In consultation with the Innovation and Technology Bureau (ITB) and the Food and Health Bureau, my reply to the question raised by the Hon Charles Mok is as follows:

(1) The Government tasked the Elderly Commission (EC) in 2014 to formulate an Elderly Services Programme Plan (ESPP).  During the formulation, EC has projected the future demand for long-term care services for the elderly based on the population ageing trends and other factors.  In addition, EC has also discussed the application of technology in elderly services and put forth recommendations that efforts should be made to, among other things, help elderly persons effectively use information and communication technology (ICT) for enhancing digital inclusion, expand the use of ICT for enhancing the quality of care delivery and promote the use of electro-mechanical equipment for enhancing the occupational safety and health of frontline workers.  EC endorsed ESPP at its meeting on June 23, 2017 and will submit it to the Government shortly.  Upon receipt of the report, the Government will give its response and release the report.

As the major public healthcare institution in Hong Kong, the Hospital Authority (HA), in assessing the future demand for healthcare services, will consider the implications of a number of factors for various regional and specialist service areas (including inpatient, day care, out-patient, acute care and community services, etc.).  The factors include the projections of the Census and Statistics Department and the Planning Department on population growth and demographic changes (including the aged population) in different districts.  According to the anticipated service demand, HA will formulate the directions for overall healthcare development as well as the projections and planning of facilities and manpower to ensure service sustainability and to meet the overall future demand for healthcare services in Hong Kong.  At the same time, HA is actively studying and developing the application of innovative information and technology for enhancing healthcare services.

(2) The Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO) organised two rounds of ICT Outreach Programme for the Elderly (Outreach Programme) and, through the Funding Scheme for Digital Inclusion Mobile Apps (DIMA), funded the development of three mobile apps for the elderly.  Details of these projects are tabulated at Annex.

When implementing the Outreach Programme and DIMA, OGCIO defined performance targets with the funded organisations and assessed the projects’ actual results upon completion.  The performance targets of the Outreach Programme include districts covered by the activities, the number of residential care homes for the elderly (RCHEs) and day care centres for the elderly participating in the programme and the number of elderly beneficiaries, etc.  All the funded organisations were able to meet the performance targets.  In addition, according to the post-activity surveys conducted by the organisations concerned, the programme was well received by the elderly and the RCHEs.  Some elderly persons said that the activities brought joy to their mundane lives and, as a result, some RCHEs took the initiative to provide tablet computers for use of their residents.  Some “hidden” elderly persons also joined activities at community centres more proactively after joining the programme.

The performance targets of DIMA include the target number of downloads of the mobile apps as well as anticipated targets of the associated activities (including the numbers of promotional activities, training and workshops organised and the number of participants, etc.).  The funded organisations also conducted user surveys to assess whether the apps could achieve the anticipated results.  The majority of users indicated that the mobile apps could facilitate the elderly to integrate in the community and broaden their social circles.

(3) We understand that gerontechnology becomes increasingly important in the care of the elderly.  Therefore, the Social Welfare Department (SWD) has already added certain products with high applicability (e.g. hoists and lifters, anti-wandering system, bed monitoring system and/or multi-sensory therapy equipment, etc.) to the Reference Furniture and Equipment (F&E) Lists for RCHEs and day care centres/units for the elderly, so that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) may purchase the equipment in a simpler and quicker manner through applying for the Lotteries Fund (LF), thereby enhancing the quality of services for the elderly.  SWD is preparing to update the Reference F&E Lists for elderly service units by adding more suitable technological products and equipment, such as anti-wandering vests, clothes management and inventory management systems making use of the Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology, for NGOs to procure through applying for using LF.  We will in future continue to strengthen support for service organisations in trial use of new technological products and equipment.

The elderly service units of NGOs may also apply for various charitable funds (e.g. the Jockey Club Charities Trust) to improve the facilities of their centres and RCHEs, and procure more advanced electronic technology equipment with a view to improving the services provided for elderly persons.  SWD will actively consider supporting those applications.

(4) The Government launched the Elderly Health Care Voucher (EHV) Scheme in 2009 which aims to allow eligible elderly persons to choose private primary care services that best suit their needs.  The EHV Scheme provides additional choices for elderly persons on top of the existing public primary care services, with a view to enhancing the primary care services for the elderly.  Vouchers can be used for healthcare services provided by medical practitioners, Chinese medicine practitioners, dentists, chiropractors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, radiographers, medical laboratory technologists and optometrists with Part I registration under the Supplementary Medical Professions Ordinance (Cap. 359) who are participating in the scheme.  Elderly persons can, according to their needs, choose to use the vouchers for various services as mentioned above, including appropriate health check-up and dental services.

Having regard to the objective of the EHV Scheme, vouchers cannot be used solely for purchasing medications or other medical equipment or products.  However, vouchers can be used for preventive, curative and rehabilitative services, including treatments provided by healthcare service providers in their professional capacity to meet the healthcare needs of elderly persons, as well as items such as the medications and medical products provided in the course of treatment.  The healthcare service providers should assume professional responsibility towards their patients.  Such an arrangement serves to protect patients’ rights while allowing a certain extent of flexibility to facilitate the use of vouchers by elderly persons to pay for various private primary care services.

As for social welfare organisations, the Government will continue to promote the development of gerontechnology through various channels, conduct sharings with the sectors and various service stakeholders and explore how to introduce and make use of gerontechnology, including continuing to incorporate suitable technological products into the Reference F&E Lists for NGOs to purchase through applying for LF, thereby improving the service flow, enhancing services and using resources effectively.

(5) Through the programmes of the Innovation and Technology Fund (ITF), the Innovation and Technology Commission (ITC) has been encouraging and providing funding support for universities, local public research institutions (e.g. research and development (R&D) centres) and private companies to conduct R&D projects in various technology areas and conduct trials of their R&D outcomes in the public sector, including projects involving gerontechnology.  For example, the Government provides additional funding for R&D projects funded by ITF through the Public Sector Trial Scheme for the production of prototypes/samples for trials in the public sector (e.g. elderly service units subvented by SWD), with a view to promoting the collaboration among universities, R&D institutions, NGOs and the Government.  The target beneficiaries of the scheme were extended to cover the incubatees of the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation and Cyberport in December 2016.

ITC also launched the Midstream Research Programme for Universities in December 2016 and invited research project proposals under the theme of Elderly Health and Care, in order to encourage universities to conduct more midstream research on gerontechnology for further downstream research work and product development.  In addition, ITB just launched the Innovation and Technology Fund for Better Living on May 31, 2017 to fund NGOs subvented by SWD, public bodies, professional bodies and trade associations to develop projects with the use of innovation and technology, that improve people’s daily life or address the needs of specific community groups (including the elderly).  Applicant organisations can, based on their needs, partner with R&D institutions or technology companies to develop the projects.

(6) Gerontechnology is a combination of elderly services and innovative technology covering a large number of areas and stakeholders.  Further, different gerontechnological products involve different technologies (e.g. healthcare and electronics, etc.).  It is therefore more appropriate for the products to be regulated by the relevant Government departments or organisations.  The Government will continue to promote the development of gerontechnology through communication and collaboration among the bureaux and departments concerned.

 

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Office Of Hon. Charles Mok, Legislative Councillor (IT)