How South Korea is harnessing AI to ease its ‘super-ageing’ crisis

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The pioneering CLOVA CareCall system was created by the Naver Corporation, one of Korea’s biggest internet conglomerates, in 2020 to help ease the burden on health workers who were struggling to meet demands on their time.

It began during the pandemic as an AI call designed to help public health centres check and report Covid-19 symptoms but has since evolved into a nationwide service used to monitor the health and overall wellbeing of elderly people living at home alone.

Korea may be a step ahead of Western nations in applying AI to elderly care but it offers a glimpse of what likely awaits many nations in future.

Naver’s Ok Sang Hoon, who is responsible for CareCall partnerships with the local governments, explained that the system is designed to call people at the same time each week to help manage disease and medication, advise on diet and exercise, detect emotional problems, and help prevent lonely deaths.

The calls, normally lasting a few minutes, are personalised, with the AI technology trained to sound as natural as possible and remember details from previous conversations to increase the level of emotional care.

Robot caller offers empathy

“This makes people feel like it’s a repeated catch up,” said Mr Ok. “For example, the AI says at the next call: ‘You didn’t have breakfast when I called you last, did you have breakfast today?’

“For the elderly who receive the call, if they are not feeling well or if they have been going out, if they talk about their personal stories, those stories are remembered and brought up again in the conversations. And there are questions relevant to their narratives.”

The service tries to offer empathy as well as focusing on their patient’s lifestyle habits including sleeping and exercise patterns and diet. Anything of alarm is followed up by human healthcare professionals.

After the AI ends the conversation, it sends a call result report to the local authorities, which is analysed to flag potential issues.

“If we identify a problem in the CareCall report, that’s when the humans intervene,” said Mr Ok, adding that the main purpose behind the system was efficiency – helping overstretched healthcare workers to quickly hone in on the people in greatest need.

Out of the 70 local governments using the service, some 85 per cent have principally signed up to try to prevent solitary deaths, he revealed.

In May, Korea’s health ministry announced a plan to survey people at risk of dying alone after the number of “lonely deaths” rose by 8.8 percent over the past five years, to 3,378 in 2022.

The number of people at risk is estimated to be about 1.525 million, following a spike in single-person households from 28.6 to 33.4 percent between 2017 and 2021, in part aggravated by the pandemic.

The ministry said AI would be central to the new strategy, monitoring high-risk groups by collecting power and water usage patterns to spot any signs of unusual behaviour.

Systems like CareCall are already playing a role. Mr Ok said the programme had so far achieved 90 per cent satisfaction rates based on polled users.  

Some said they had been comforted and consoled by the calls, or made lifestyle improvements after prompts about meals and exercising.

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