From walking canes to wrist alarms: WHO’s global survey on assistive technologies

February 2016

WHO has launched a global survey to gather views on the most necessary and useful assistive technologies such as hearing aids and wheel chairs. The survey will feed into the first ever WHO mandated list of essential assistive technologies to provide a tool for governments. Governments can use the list to plan and focus efforts to help populations acquire the 50 priority products, thereby improving the everyday lives of the elderly and people with disabilities.

Morten Bjorkman with his daughter Anna, Sweden
Anna Lindström

Morten Bjorkman is 92 years old and lives in Stockholm. Since his wife died, when he was 77, he has lived on his own. While his 2 daughters and their families have helped him over the years, Mr Bjorkman wanted to be independent and live life on his own terms. Assistive technologies and devices have helped him do that.

Mr Bjorkman started using a hearing aid at 70 and at the same time installed grab bars in the bathroom and a shower seat. Soon after, he acquired a walking cane, orthopaedic shoes and a walker to get around more safely but also keep moving and stay healthy.

His daughters encouraged him to get a personal emergency alarm on his wrist that is connected by phone to local health services. “I often stumbled at home … and there was a risk that I would fall,” said Mr Bjorkman. “I once got severe shortness of breath due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and needed quick help and care – the alarm saved my life. It is not just an assistive device – more than that, it’s a life-saving tool.”

These practical tools – some low, some higher technologies – are becoming increasingly necessary to the many people in high- and middle-income countries who are living longer due to better healthcare. Similar devices are used by people with disabilities, allowing them to live more autonomously and participate in their communities.

However, such tools are not readily available everywhere. WHO estimates that only 1 out of 10 people who need these vital supports are accessing them today, due to lack of availability and awareness, and high costs.

To that end, WHO has launched a global survey to gather people’s views on which assistive devices are most necessary and useful. On the basis of the survey results, and after expert consultation, WHO will develop a list of essential assistive products, similar to the WHO Essential Medicines List.

The tool will help governments to plan and focus efforts on acquiring the 50 top priority products for their populations and, most importantly, it will improve the everyday lives of the elderly and the many people with disabilities. The aim is to increase access to assistive technologies for 1 billion people who need them today, and to reach 1.5 billion by 2030.