'Health and Housing should go hand in hand'

The year was 1948.

The then Health Secretary Aneurin Bevan walked into a Greater Manchester hospital and proudly announced free healthcare for all.

It was the birth of the National Health Service and a defining moment in Britain’s history.

Fast-forward 70 years and the NHS is in the grips of a crisis like never before.

But what, you may ask, has it got to do with housing? The answer is, everything.

Research by Age UK has shown that a staggering one million hospital bed days are lost every year due to 'bed blocking'. And the majority of these so called 'bed blockers' are made up of our elderly population.

It begs the question as to why, in this first world country, the older generation are being left to languish in hospital beds. These people have fought our wars, built our country and raised our children - yet in their hour of need, they're just another statistic.

I imagine the majority of us will have some personal experience of an elderly relative or loved one, having a fall, entering the hospital system and never returning home - it's a well-trodden and vicious cycle.

But it really hits home when you realise that four in seven older people admitted to hospital via A&E could have avoided it if the right housing and care package was put in place. 

They should never have been in that hospital bed in the first place, and this is where we, the housing sector, come in.

It costs the NHS on average around £2,000 to keep someone in a hospital bed every week. The social housing sector could provide a safe and secure home environment, which better meets their needs and allows them to live independently with the dignity and respect they deserve, for a fraction of that.  

Health and housing should go hand in hand. It's not rocket science to know that housing quality and suitability are major determinants to health and wellbeing. Good quality, safe housing equals reduced hospital admissions, fewer GP visits and less pressure on the NHS.

Housing associations are well placed to partner with health professionals. We’re in touch with large numbers of elderly, vulnerable and disabled people and have a long history of supporting them to live independently.

But in today's digital world, we need to go much further than just ensuring our homes are safe, warm and free from damp - it's time to introduce the Smart Home.

This concept should not just be the realm of wealthy early adopters. As a sector, we should be exploring how rapid advances in technology can help our elderly residents live independently and safely in their homes for longer.

And Salix Homes has made the first steps into this unchartered territory with our pioneering MiiHome project.

We've teamed up with the NHS and university academics to use artificial intelligence to monitor the wellbeing of some of our elderly residents.

Sensors, adapted from X Box Kinect gaming technology, have been fitted into a number of our sheltered housing schemes in Salford with the long-term aim of detecting any changes in behaviour that could be linked to a deterioration in health.

I must stress that this is not what George Orwell warned us about in 1984 - this is not Big Brother and there are no cameras involved.

Instead, these discreet sensors act like a ‘digital guardian angel’, monitoring 17 points on the body.

The data collected is crunched by university boffins, and from that we can tell if a resident has perhaps slowed down in their movements, or has been getting up more frequently in the night. All indicators that there may be a problem with their health.

This early warning system will allow health professionals to step in, react appropriately and avoid that catastrophic event like a fall, which could result when things continue to deteriorate, perhaps unnoticed, and ultimately reduce the number of hospital admissions.

For me personally, this pioneering project hits close to home. My own father-in-law suffers from the devastating, degenerative disease Parkinson’s. 

For the past three years, he's spent around eight weeks, every year, in hospital, as a result of a fall. But with the right care and support package in place at home - and better use of technology - those falls are eminently preventable.

As the MiiHome project develops, later this year we will be launching our very first ‘Smart Home’ in conjunction with Salford Royal NHS Trust.

The property has been fully kitted-out with a suite of sensors and the hospital will place patients with extra care needs, such as Parkinson’s or dementia, in the property for a week as part of their discharge process.

By closely monitoring a patient's movements and behaviours in the Smart Home, medical professionals can put in place a more suitable care and support package, which better meets their needs when they get home, and reduces the chances of re-admissions.

It's ground-breaking stuff and Salix Homes is proud to be at the centre of it. 

On July 5, our NHS celebrated its 70th birthday. It’s the jewel in Britain’s crown – a vital institution we can all be proud of.

And like the housing sector, the NHS must evolve to meet the changing needs of the nation. A growing and ageing population, coupled with crippling budget constraints, means the pressures on our services are greater than ever before.

But together, we can rise to these challenges and embrace the evolution of technology and innovation to create a health and housing service we can continue to be proud of for another 70 years and beyond.