Eric Dishman, a behavioral scientist, was holding a battered cardboard box with a mailing label on it. He promised the audience a preview of a wonderful tool for improving elderly health care and independence at home. “You’d better get a close up of this,” he said to the cameraman recording the talk for yesterday’s TED MED conference that is running from October 27 through 30 at the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, Calif. (TED MED stands for technology, entertainment, design.) Dishman, chief strategist and global director of product research, innovation and policy for Intel’s Digital Health Group, pulled out the device: an old-fashioned telephone.

Dishman was being playful, but the point was serious: technology that assists in keeping in touch with individuals who want to remain at home can help track their well-being—and in doing so they can provide a more affordable way to help maintain health than institutional settings as well. Using an analogy from the computer world, Dishman advocated a switch from the current “mainframe” health care in hospitals to systems that enable more powerful personal health care in the home.

“Behavioral markers matter,” said Dishman, who noted that Intel has studied 1,000 elderly families in 20 different countries with the idea of understanding how a change in a person's daily patterns, or characteristic markers, of behavior could be used for diagnostic purposes. For instance, a small experimental device called a SHIMMER (for Sensing Health with Intelligence, Modularity, Mobility and Experimental Reusability) fits into a pocket and monitors such attributes as hand tremor, gait and stride length. Another, called Magic Carpet, includes sensors embedded in carpet and also can track a person’s movements. A break in the routine could signal, for instance, that the patient’s new medication is not working correctly, he said.

Dishman hopes that technology will enable 50 percent of all care to move to the home in the next decade. Referring to the health care debate, he said, “No matter who pays for it, we better start doing care in a fundamentally different way.”