Thanks Guru and Peter
The price of assistive (and medical) technology is a really tricky topic. The prices are ridiculous, but on the other hand I can understand the sequence of events that has resulted in those prices. The people and companies who develop assistive tech aren’t necessarily trying to be unreasonable with their pricing, they (mostly) are doing their best to produce devices that make lives better, but internal forces such as the need to maximise profit combined with external forces such as the regulatory environment and the structure of medical services paid by insurance companies results in prices that look insane.
There is also the issue of economy of scale. Some of the most advanced technology in the world today is contained in our phones, which are miracles of engineering. If you look at everything a phone can do, it should cost way more than we pay for them. But because the market for phones is billions of devices, one-off engineering costs are amortised across a huge number of units.
While I was in New Zealand 2 weeks ago I heard an interesting story that illustrates this point, and ties in to the thing about insurance companies and regulation. I’ll keep this anonymous, because the person who told me about this works in the industry helping people with disabilities get set up with technology, and I don’t want to burn them. They said that a client had a need for a specific function that could be provided by either a $200 mobile phone with a piece of software on it, or by a $10,000 assistive technology device that was created specifically for the same purpose. The $200 phone would totally solve the problem for them, and of course would then provide a wide range of other features as well. The $10,000 device would only solve that specific problem.
But the $10,000 device is classified as a medical device, so it can be funded using medical insurance. The $200 phone is a consumer device, so their medical insurance refused to cover it. The person could buy the $200 phone themselves, buy they’re in financial difficulty and can’t afford it out of their own pocket.
The result? The insurance company pays for the $10,000 device instead of the $200 phone!
To the person who needs the device, this solves the problem. But the extra funds paid by the insurance company have to come from somewhere, and that “somewhere” is the fees that ultimately come out of everyone’s pockets.
So it’s a systemic problem, with many facets. I want to side-step the system as much as possible to efficiently solve problems and make people’s lives better, but the single biggest barrier is regulation around supply of assistive technology. Once again I understand why the regulation exists, but in many cases it simply prevents people from receiving technology that could make a big impact in their lives, or results in it costing $10,000 when it could cost $200.
Aaagggghhh, this has turned into a rant! I’ll stop myself now.
Regarding chair control, that’s something that Nick, Chris, and I have spent a lot of time working on and talking about future possibilities. We’ve achieved chair control using an Arduino to send fake joystick input to the Q-Logic controller on a chair, so we have the ability to remote-drive a chair but we’re not actively doing that right now. So far we haven’t added sensors or anything else for anti-collision, but that’s on the list and I think it would be important. Many people don’t realise that an electric wheelchair is a 200+ kg robot with very powerful motors, and it’s quite capable of ripping plaster off the wall or smashing a table if it’s not driven accurately. We want to add collision avoidance, SLAM (local mapping), and waypoint navigation, so it’s possible to tell the chair “go to the kitchen” or “park yourself in the corner” and have it just do it.
I could talk about this stuff for hours, and this post is too long already!