“This is the right time to make sustainable use of technology”
Marjolein den Ouden

In Almelo, elderly people with a migration background receive help and support remotely from virtual assistant Anne. The use of health care technology has increased exponentially during the corona crisis, says Marjolein den Ouden, lecturer Technology, Health & Care at Saxion and practor Health Care and Technology at ROC Twente. “This is the right time to be looking for ways to sustainably implement technology into people’s work and lives.”


These are interesting times for Marjolein den Ouden. For years, she has been working alongside students, lecturers, researchers and health care professionals on various projects designed to stimulate the adoption and acceptance of technologies that can improve health care and people’s wellbeing. “Since the coronavirus pandemic began, innovations have been happening a lot quicker than before. In the past, we had to convince people of the usefulness of health care technology; now, the use of technology is practically a given,” Den Ouden notes. The same is true for Anne: in April, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport awarded a subsidy for the use of the virtual assistant to help elderly people with a migration background, most of whom come from Turkey. “The major benefit is that we can really begin utilizing this technology much sooner now. We can ask people about their experiences: what works and what doesn’t? Without such insight into users’ experiences, health care technology will remain fictitious. This is the right time to be looking for ways to sustainably implement technology into people’s work and lives. At the same time, we have to assess when a technology has no added value for people.”


Anne is a virtual personal assistant and a functional example of using artificial intelligence (AI) in the health care sector. Anne works on a tablet and helps elderly people make video calls. She also reacts to speech: she answers questions, listens to what people say and can perform various tasks. This makes the virtual assistant more than simply a tablet that elderly people can use to make video calls. Anne’s voice and face are powered by intelligent software that utilizes speech recognition, speech synthesis technology and artificial intelligence (AI). The virtual assistant can remind people of their appointments, to take their medication or to eat and drink. She can also stimulate users to do other things. Furthermore, Anne can be used in combination with a human backup; a caregiver who makes weekly video calls with Anne’s users and ensures their various appointments and reminders are set up correctly. What is unique about the project with elderly people with a migration background is that Anne also speaks its users’ native language – Turkish and English, in this case.


In collaboration with Saxion’s Health Care & Technology lectorate, Marjolein den Ouden will be conducting practice-based research dedicated to the use of virtual assistant Anne among elderly people with a migration background. The way Anne is used will be monitored and described, with a focus on the experiences of its elderly users. “We will measure its use and gather hard data, but we will also take the stories of the people using Anne into account. That is the strength of this research,” Marjolein den Ouden says. “We often talk about people’s quality of life, but that is a comprehensive and abstract concept. Instead, we will ask people what Anne’s added value for them is. How do you use her? What issues do you encounter? Tell us how you feel about Anne? What does she have to offer you?” The lecturer says it is incredibly important to perform this type of practical research. “There are so many health care technology innovations available, but they are not universally applicable. As a health care professional, you want to make an informed decision and know what technology is best suited to what target group. It is also important to know what the dos and don’ts of using the technology are, according to its users, so you as a health care professional know what to keep in mind.”


Den Ouden also says it is valuable to conduct research into the use of technology among elderly people with a migration background. “Everyone looks at technology from their own perspective and vision, which means people do not necessarily have the same needs and wishes when it comes to technology. It is therefore important to include the target group of elderly people with a migration background in studies. “We need diversity in our studies into the use of health care technology, because that is the only way to get comprehensive insight into what technology works best in what situation. That is why I love the fact that this project gives us an opportunity to further explore the needs and wishes of elderly people with a migration background. For example, Anne can speak Turkish. However, the corona measures made it necessary to persuade people remotely to use technology. Does that work? That is another aspect we are looking into. In the end, technology only works if you are able to make a match between people and technology.”


That match between people and technology should not only exist between elderly people and Anne; in order for it to be implemented successfully, health care professionals or voluntary caregivers must also embrace the technology. “We know that the environment is a crucial factor when it comes to the adoption and acceptance of technology.” If that acceptance is missing, things are unlikely to change. According to Marjolein den Ouden, that is one of the main reasons why seemingly simple innovations such as video calls have not been widely adopted in the health care sector. “Health care is a job for people; professionals associate their care with face-to-face contact, being close to people and being able to touch them. Health care professionals often cite that warm care as one of the best aspects of their job. Technology is often seen as cold and impersonal. When the corona measures suddenly prevent you as a health care professional from caring for people how you used to, you really begin to think about other ways to be close to people and how technology can contribute to that.”


Some health care organizations are already taking big leaps forward, while other organizations lag behind because they are unable to keep up with the rapid rate of change. That trend has not gone unnoticed by Marjolein den Ouden. “Technology can enrich your work and life, but it can also be a major source of frustration if you as a person or organization are not yet ready to adopt said technology. I believe this will lead to larger discrepancies between the people and organizations who were already working on innovation and who can now really double down on their efforts and those who are unable to keep up because they don’t know where or how to begin.   As a society, we have to be mindful of that.” For that reason, the field of education is explicitly involved in the study into the use of the virtual assistant. Saxion students conduct research and the results are shared with many stakeholders. “That integration and the widespread sharing of results are very important: what can we learn from our research? What does this mean for our study programs? How can we integrate this knowledge and these experiences and what do we need to properly train students in a rapidly changing field?”



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