Quality, timely healthcare is an absolute must. Whether we are dealing with an aging population or younger people who have experienced health problems, everyone deserves medical assistance when they need it. This is true whether they find themselves confined to an institution or their own home.

The need for healthcare has increased dramatically over the past century. This is, in part, because the general population is experiencing an extended lifespan.

“In 2006, 37 million people age 65 and over lived in the United States, accounting for just over 12 percent of the total population. Over the 20th century, the older population grew from 3 million to 37 million. The oldest-old population (those age 85 and over) grew from just over 100,000 in 1900 to 5.3 million in 2006,” according to Older Americans 2008, published by the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging Related Statistics.

This is an even greater concern as the baby boomer generation, which includes those born between 1946 and 1964, enter the healthcare market. The first of the baby boomers will turn 65 in 2011, which will begin a huge influx of older Americans into the long-term healthcare market. As a result, the need for quality healthcare is growing every day, and the number of products designed to provide health assurance has grown right along with it.

Healthcare opportunities

The growing number of elderly is not the only reason low-voltage contractors should take special interest in the healthcare market. If there were ever a generation of older Americans who are prepared to pay top dollar for long- and short-term healthcare, it’s the current one.

According to the Older Americans 2008, “Overall, most older people are enjoying more prosperity than any previous generation. There has been an increase in the proportion of older people in the high-income group and a decrease in the proportion of older people living in poverty, as well as a decrease in the proportion in the low-income group.”

For these reasons, there is currently a huge need for low-voltage solutions in the healthcare marketplace. Among these are personal alert systems for the home, and emergency call systems for institutional applications, such as assisted living centers, hospice facilities and nursing homes.

Government veteran medical centers are another market segment. As the U.S. government strives to improve veteran services in their medical facilities, the number of low-voltage systems will continue to rise. Although not every low-voltage contractor will have access to this specialized sector, a percentage will.

Community opportunities

Low-voltage contractors are in a good position to provide myriad products and services to the healthcare community. This includes access control, nurse call, door monitoring, video surveillance and patient wandering systems (PWS). Best of all, many of these subsystems can be integrated into a single cohesive system using a common operating platform.

There has been a marked increase in the number of older Americans who have chosen to remain at home during their illnesses, while others live in assisted living centers that appear more like condominiums or apartments than healthcare facilities, and in many cases they are.

On the home front, emergency medical help can be arranged using a personal alert system that calls directly to a 911 dispatch center. In other cases, this involves a contractual arrangement where a central monitoring station is notified electronically when an ailing homeowner presses a button for help.

Most of these systems center on a wireless transmitter, such as the one in the famous commercial where someone has fallen and can’t get up. This technology involves a wireless pendant that the individual wears around his or her neck. Another type of transmitter comes in the form of a wristwatch. Through wireless technology, originally pioneered by the electronic security industry, a small transmitter sends a radio signal to a receiver when someone presses it.

Some pendant transmitters contain two or more buttons, as is typical of a combination burglar/fire alarm system. In some cases, the second or third button can be programmed to arm and disarm the security portion of the system and a fourth can be used to turn lights on and off.

Exception reporting as a health aide

Another approach uses motion combined with an alert-type system that automatically calls for help when physical motion is not detected in a specific area within a specific time frame. This could be a hallway between a bedroom and bathroom or within a living room—anywhere the homeowner is apt to pass during his or her normal daily routine.

Some of these systems have a one-time fee at the time of purchase while others require a monthly fee. While the former is typically installed by the end-user, the latter is installed by a low-voltage contractor. The contractor can charge a monthly fee for monitoring. This type of recurring revenue is good for business because it helps to ensure a dependable, predictable cash flow.

By contrast, the do-it-yourself system relies on a series of phone numbers that the end-user programs into the unit at the time of installation. Some of these systems will dial 911 directly, allowing the operator to dispatch help. This kind of system relies on electronic digital communication. A central station operator simply communicates with the paramedics or others when someone signals for help. In some cases, an operator interacts with the individual through two-way voice technology to find out what the problem is so he or she can provide the appropriate response.

Opportunities in nursing homes

There are more than 16,000 nursing facilities across the United States. These specialized facilities contain more than 1.9 million beds with more than 1.6 million residents who receive the specialized care they need while enjoying social activities. There are numerous opportunities in this type of venue for low-voltage firms that have the know-how to install and service equipment that a nursing home commonly uses.

In a typical nursing home, you will find PWS, public address, fire alarm and telephone systems, emergency call, intercoms, sprinkler system monitoring, and others.

Traditional emergency call systems long ago earned the respect of healthcare operators and government agencies. For evidence, look to the fact that almost all nursing homes are equipped either with a nurse call or emergency call system. The difference is that where nurse call systems are UL-listed and approved for hospitals and large nursing homes—providing audible/visable signaling with two-way voice confirmation—emergency call systems offer audible/visible signaling only.

At the heart of these life-saving systems is a control unit that provides two-way voice and multiple-voltage switching for corridor lamps, nurse duty stations, call directories and more. Call stations are traditionally installed in patient bathrooms and by beds. The majority of nurse call and emergency call systems use metallic cable, offering continued business for electrical contractors with the knowledge to install and service them.

Another opportunity for low-voltage contractors involves fire alarm maintenance, which is extremely critical for healthcare facility operators. So critical is it that every year most facilities elect to conduct a sensitivity test of every smoke detector, even though the National Fire Alarm Code, NFPA 72, only requires this test every two years, or once every five years when a detailed history is kept of every smoke detector in the complex.

Sprinkler system monitoring also is a sizable area for contractor income in the nursing home market, since almost every sprinkler system installed requires 24/7 monitoring. This is accomplished per code through a central station or a supervising station. The profitability is even higher when low-voltage contractors develop partnerships with local sprinkler companies.

Maintenance contracts are a huge boon for those who work in low voltage. This usually requires a well-defined contract that states exactly what is covered and what is not. The benefit of selling a maintenance contract is that the healthcare facility agrees to have the contractor do testing and maintenance, which in itself provides a healthy source of recurring revenue.

Patient wandering systems

Another boon for low-voltage contractors is the revenue that comes from the installation and service of PWS. This system type uses highly specialized equipment, involving the control and monitoring of mechanical points of egress for the sake of special patients, such as Alzheimer’s sufferers, who are not permitted to exit without supervision.

At the same time, the fire code requires that everyone be given ready and immediate egress in the case of a fire. This is a delicate balancing act that low-voltage contractors must manage. This is where PWS come in.

PWS use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. This is essentially the same technology used in electronic article surveillance systems, only instead of identifying retail items, PWS are designed to identify individuals, such as Alzheimer patients.

These patients are fitted with an ankle or wrist bracelet containing an RFID tag, which has a microchip with an antenna. The chip is capable of transmitting an identifiable radio signal when the patient approaches a door that has been equipped with an RFID reader.

There are two types of RFID-based devices on the market: active and passive.

Active RFID tags contain their own power source, whereas passive models rely on a static field that surrounds an antenna near the door. When this type of RFID transmitter enters the field, it is made to oscillate at a particular frequency. This signal is, in turn, picked up by the same antenna.

Anyone who does not bear a PWS wrist or ankle bracelet is permitted to exit the facility without delay. The door may be locked and is only released when visitors who are not wearing an RFID tag approach and are detected by an egress motion detector, or there might be a pushbutton they can press to release the lock. This allows visitors to leave freely.

When someone with an RFID tag strapped to their wrist or ankle approaches the door, a 15- to 30-second delay occurs, during which time a piezoelectric or audible alert sounds at the door and maybe elsewhere. An electronic door lock can be engaged to delay the patient. During this delay, nursing home workers are alerted, giving them time to reach the patient before the system releases the door.

There are many low-voltage strategies that can be enlisted in a healthcare facility or in the home for those aging in place. An experienced contractor can help facilities managers or home-owners learn about and have these systems installed. Discuss these strategies, and you may find some areas for improvement.

COLOMBO is a 35-year veteran in the security and life safety markets. He is director with FireNetOnline.com and a nationally recognized trade journalist in East Canton, Ohio. Reach him at abc@alcolombo.us.