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Last Updated: 11. July 2017

GPS Tracking Technologies Can Save Lives And Cut Costs, But is it Ethical to Use Them?

Advantages And Disadvantages Of Surveillance Technology

Wandering behaviour is usually a result of memory problems and disorders in the intellectual functioning. This prevents patients to identify landmarks, to judge distance and speed, and to know direction angles and expected arrival times between landmarks. Unfortunately, this may put the life of the patients at risk and can be a real challenge for the caregivers. Therefore, clients' safety is among the dominant values when considering incorporation of surveillance technology into existing care routines.

GPS or similar tracking systems can make the environment of vulnerable individuals safer, by providing safeguards and reassurance for family and caregivers that the person they care about will not get lost. However, avoidance of threatening clients safety often leads to limitation of freedom.

Autonomy of people with intellectual disabilities is a huge problem that does not have only one solution. In 2013, 34% of people with dementia in the UK did not feel part of their community and 28% were not able to make decisions about how they spend their time, according to the Alzheimer's society in the UK. While social integration is a long process, tracking systems can increase the overall patients’ autonomy on a daily basis by allowing them to continue with their familiar routine.

However, questions arise as how ethical tracking of people is. Many ethical debates have arrised especially in Britain according to the Department of Nursing Home Medicine at VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. There is considerable resistance from those who perceive tracking technologies as opposing human rights of freedom and autonomy.

Even though no ethical consensus has been reached, some local authorities in the UK such as the police in Sussex have already been integrating surveillance technology for people with disabilities and have achieved encouraging results as the Guardian Social Network reports.

Besides improving the quality of services for people with disabilities, tracking technologies can save money to the police on time searching for missing patients and to the national health and social system on personal caregivers and hospitalization costs. Some argue, however, that tracking people might attenuate the care relationship.

Dementia and intellectual disabilities in numbers

Some diseases cause memory problems and wandering behaviour which often leads to search and rescue incidents. This may happen within all age groups - from children with Autism to elderly people suffering from senility, and generally every person with dementia, Alzheimer or any other intellectual disabilities. But the risk of dementia increases with age as the graphic shows.

Dementia Increases With Age _770x 536

Calculation based on data from the Alzheimer's society, the UK's leading dementia support and research charity, show that between 0 and 1 in 100 people under 65 years are suffering dementia, while 7 in 100 people over 65 have dementia and 17 in 100 over 80 have it. Having in mind the growing and aging population, the numbers, unfortunately, are not promising. While in 2015 around 850,000 people are living with dementia in the UK, 62 % of whom have Alzheimer's disease, they are expected to be nearly 2 millions in 2051 if preventions are not taken.

Number Of People With Dementia _769x 427

The increasing number of vulnerable individuals such as the elderly with dementia or people with learning disabilities leads to increasing demand on healthcare services and therefore more expenses. As the graphics shows, dementia costs over £30,000 per person each year, which makes it close to £26 bn in 2015 and it is about to increase according to the Alzheimer's society.

Our forecast is that the dementia costs in the UK will be more than double only 36 years from now reaching the number of nearly £63 bn in 2051 if the system does not change. The state costs include health and social care - state and individual. Home based health and social care schemes have been developing in order to increase the independence and the efficiency of the treatment. However, this may lead to extra costs and has some limitations.

Dementia Costs 2_770x 507

How do GPS tracking systems work?

One way to avoid such risky situations is through surveillance technology. There is a variety of electronic tagging and tracking devices available on the market: pocket-style devices; identification watches, bracelets or other jewelries with an integrated tracking system; personal transmitters to be placed around the ankle; GPS tracking devices located in the shoes and many more.

No matter what type of device is to be used, the purpose of the life-saving location technology is to track the location of the vulnerable individual who wears it. It allows the relatives or caregivers to find him quickly and safely in case of wander, disorientation or if he gets lost.

Each provider of a surveillance system may use various softwares, GPS systems, mobile applications etc, but the algorithm of tracking is common. The patient has a rechargeable tracking device, usually GPS-based, which is sending geographic coordinates to a central monitoring system. It allows real-time tracking or a location update in certain intervals of time.

Health care professionals and relatives can track their patients or loved ones through the system website, applications, providers hotline, online maps or through other channels. The caregivers can synchronize the tracking device with their smartphones and can set an alarm if the set radius has been exceeded. Most tracking devices have a SOS button to be pressed in case of emergency when an immediate alert is sent to the system and therefore to the health and social carers or whoever is using it.

The future of tracking technologies in healthcare

Surveillance technology triggers controversial opinions and it certainly cannot replace health and social care for patients with intellectual disabilities, but it can contribute to it if included in the health and social package. With clear vision, understanding and support of stakeholders it can be successfully implemented to improve the lives of many patients and to increase the quality of service and save money for public or private authorities.