Solitary death and new lifestyles during and after COVID-19: wearable devices and public health ethics

BMC Medical Ethics 22 (1):1-10 (2021)
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BackgroundSolitary death (kodokushi) has recently become recognized as a social issue in Japan. The social isolation of older people leads to death without dignity. With the outbreak of COVID-19, efforts to eliminate solitary death need to be adjusted in line with changes in lifestyle and accompanying changes in social structure. Health monitoring services that utilize wearable devices may contribute to this end. Our goals are to outline how wearable devices might be used to (1) detect emergency situations involving solitary older people and swiftly connect them with medical treatment, to (2) reduce the frequency of deaths that remain undiscovered and (3) to reduce social isolation by promoting social interaction. MethodsTheoretical and philosophical approaches were adopted to examine ethical issues surrounding the application of wearable devices and cloud-based information processing systems to prevent solitary death in the world with/after COVID-19.Main body(1) Technology cannot replace social connections; without social support necessary to foster understanding of the benefits of health management through wearable devices among older adults, such devices may remain unused, or not used properly. (2) Maturity of the technology; systems face the difficult task of detecting and responding to a wide range of health conditions and life-threatening events in time to avert avoidable morbidity and mortality. (3) Autonomy and personhood; promoting the voluntary use of wearable devices that are a part of larger efforts to connect isolated individuals to a community or social services might be effective. Legal force should be avoided if possible. There is some concern that landlords may require an older person to sign a contract agreeing to wear a device. The autonomy of solitary older people should be respected. (4) Governance: policies must be developed to limit access to data from wearables and the purposes for which data can be used.ConclusionIf thoughtfully deployed under proper policy constraints, wearable devices offer a way to connect solitary older people to health services and could reduce cases of solitary death while respecting the personhood of the user.



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Alex John London
Carnegie Mellon University

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