Sensors, connected devices, and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies have enormous potential to change the way we think about healthcare in the home. But the downside is that sacrifices sometimes have to be made in terms of comfort and privacy.
Smart home monitoring systems that detect when an elderly person has had an accident, for example, can feel as invasive as they are supportive.
But things are changing. Researchers are developing more subtle ways of bringing technology into the home and eeking out the benefits of ever-present connectivity.
Israeli startup Vayyar is one. The company is developing a radar sensing system for residential and commercial environments that’s capable of building 3D images and an understanding of what’s happening without seeing it in the conventional sense.
Using a wearable to prevent falls
However, another route to providing non-invasive help in the homes of vulnerable people is through dedicated health wearables. This week, researchers in Illinois revealed the foundations of a device that could actively predict when elderly people are at risk of falling.
In the UK, around one-third of people aged 65 and over, and around half of people aged 80 and over, fall at least once every year. In the US the numbers are similar, and with brittle bones and the risk of broken hips ever present, a serious fall can have serious – sometimes fatal – consequences.
With the aim of bringing those figures down, Professor Bruce Schatz, the University of Illinois College of Medicine’s head of the Medical Information Science, has been working with colleagues from the Women’s Health Initiative. Together, they have used data from a mobility study involving 67 women over the age of 60 to analyse walking patterns.
In the study, participants wore a small device containing motion sensors in order to measure their walking patterns. Analysis of the data found that researchers could predict the participants’ risk of falling and effectively measure their instability. The findings have been published in Nature Digital Medicine.
“Our prediction showed that we could very accurately tell the difference between people that were really stable and people that were unstable in some way,” Schatz said.
Quantifying instability for the future
As is the case with many wearables being used for healthcare purposes, the technology could be a preventative solution, proactively reducing the risk of accidents rather than responding to them after the fact.
Schatz predicts that, soon, more wearable devices and even smartphone applications could measure walking patterns in the same way and warn users if they are at risk of injuring themselves.
The majority of smartphones on the market include accelerometers, which could be used to record users’ movements and provide valuable data to doctors. In turn, they could suggest preventative exercises to improve stability.
“I work a lot with primary care physicians, and they love this idea, because they only see people after they start falling,” said Schatz. “At that point, it’s already sort of too late.”
Internet of Business says
Ultimately, the project is about changing the way we think about falls among older people. Instead of accepting it as normal, embracing new technologies and changing behaviour could improve outcomes and quality of life.
“There is a solution which is completely workable and isn’t very expensive, but requires different behaviour,” said Schatz. “That message is not getting out.
“The future is different. And it’s because of projects like this.”