Editorial: Ably assisted technology

We discussed and dismissed a lot of other ideas for this month's cover before settling on our high-tech home help making tea and getting it so wrong.

The terminology around disability has always been controversial; the term 'differently-abled people', for example, which was coined in the 1980s by the US Democratic National Committee, never really seemed to catch on. Our main problem was hitting on the right image - we threw out various pictures on the theme of disability that were too medical, vaguely patronising, way too negative or painted disabled people as victims, isolated and lonely people in a depressing world.

'Does he take sugar?' is an anecdotal phrase that will be familiar to many as the title of a long-running radio programme on BBC Radio 4. Over four decades it gave a voice to disabled people and gradually, if only by the title itself, helped to warn listeners against inadvertent discrimination.

We thought the phrase summed up how easy it is to provide well-meaning but inappropriate or over-engineered systems for the assistive technology market.

William Beveridge's original assumption when he planned the UK National Health Service was that it would become cheaper as people grew healthier. Of course, the opposite happened. People began to live longer to get sick again, and more often ended up needing even more expensive care in years they wouldn't previously have seen. Now there's a growing interest in the potential for technology to help people live better and longer lives, but in a way that governments can actually afford - and may even save them money. So everyone could benefit - engineers, the tax-payer and, most importantly, the customer in the form of the disabled person, the sick patient, elderly dependent people or many other people who are vulnerable in some way. And that's most of us, at some point in our lives at least.

Getting that technology right is full of ethical issues and some unique problems. Electronic tagging seems like a good way to help monitor dementia victims, but is it right to do so? Dr Sharon Ann Holgate looks at what makes assistive technology acceptable or unacceptable to the users on p32.

Mobile phones are a useful component of assistive systems. We look at how they could be used in remote diagnosis as well as remote monitoring in our communications section on p62. Consultants in this area tell us on p40 that inventors often overlook the reliability issue when they design mobiles into their systems - and they then have to meet strict medical standards.

Also in this issue, we look at how technology could save more lives by allowing better models of the human heart on p16, and by analysing people's gait on p36. A new technique called 'scan and solve' (p23) could help real live flesh and blood as well as the inanimate but perfect bodies it's already saved. We look at how the design of MRI scanners (p20) is changing to accommodate obese patients, and why what surgeons need next is some non-metallic scalpels. And on p30, Chris Edwards looks at how electronics is being used to track the health of well people, in a trend called the 'consumerisation' of healthcare.

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