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New technology helps Swedish care for elderly

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Stephen von Rump moved from Silicon Valley to Sweden a few years ago and brought along his Giraff. No, not a giraffe. This Giraff is a robot on wheels, about the height of your average man, with a tall steel pole for a body and a large video monitor for a head.

As the Giraff rolls up to me, I can see Von Rump’s face on the video screen. And he can see into the room I’m sitting in. He’s just down the hall, but because he’s operating the robot with his laptop he could be anywhere. And that’s the point. They can get out their laptop and just go and make what’s known in Swedish care as a “titta i,” or in other words a “looking in” visit.

The Giraff — and similar robotic monitoring systems — can be expensive, as much as a couple thousand dollars a piece. But they can also help bring down costs by reducing hospital admissions and delaying expensive nursing home stays allowing people to live in their own homes longer.

“It can postpone the transition from the home to the nursing home where the cost of care more than doubles or triples,” says von Rump.

Von Rump developed the Giraff in Silicon Valley. Sweden’s Robotdalen Lab asked him to bring it here. The lab’s part of a half-billion-dollar effort by the Swedish government to improve care for people 65 and older. Robotdalen recruits entrepreneurs like Von Rump and they come because they can get their products to the market more quickly.

“We are here in elderly homes in countries around Europe. We are doing that today. And there is no way a company, certainly of our size, a start-up company, could be doing that in the U.S. today,” says von Rump.

Here’s why: Medicare and the FDA won’t approve new gadgets without a lot of research showing results and results from check-ins and preventative care are difficult to measure. That makes investors shy away.

Stefanos Zenios, a professor of health care management at Stanford University, says Europe streamlines the process.

“It’s easier to recruit patients and physicians to participate in studies and collaborate with early stage companies. It’s also easier to navigate the regulatory environment in Europe,” says Zenios.

But Sweden has it’s obstacles too. Some nurses and social workers are afraid the robots may steal their jobs. Others simply don’t want to learn how to work the new gadgetry.

With a little help from von Rump, I tried operating the Giraff myself.

“Go straight ahead and then you’re going to turn right past that wall. Most people over-steer the first time and kind of wobble back and forth,” he told me.

Moving the Giraff around was actually easier than I expected. I liked it. Maybe it will be available in the U.S. by the time I’m a senior citizen.

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