UK hospital to explore VR for stroke patient rehabilitation

UK hospital to explore VR for stroke patient rehabilitation

The debilitating impact of a stroke can last long after the event has taken place. Sufferers are often left with a range of problems, which make include poor balance, loss of coordination, partial paralysis, impaired spatial awareness and speech, and a lengthy recovery timeline.

At the extreme end of the scale, patients have to spend time in rehab learning to walk again. But just as damaging to those seeking a return to normality is the challenge of performing everyday tasks with the ease they were able to in the past. Just putting the kettle on or operating a toaster, for example, are skills that require confidence to be rebuilt alongside no small amount of cognitive rehabilitation.

Using VR to aid stroke recovery

Traditionally, that process involves hours of supervised – and often tediously repetitive – physiotherapy. Although the majority of people survive their first stroke, one-third are left with significant cognitive impairment that impedes their ability to function. Often this translates into needing social and financial support, in many cases for the rest of their lives.

In an effort to cut lengthy hospital stays, ease the burden on nursing staff, clinicians and therapists, and improve patient outcomes, the University of Chester’s Medical Graphics team has partnered with the Stroke Department at the Countess of Chester Hospital to see where Virtual Reality (VR) technology might fit in.

The concept behind the project is to help patients gain confidence and cognitive support in the relatively risk-free virtual world first, before carrying out tasks in the real world. The experimental project has been awarded a £453,000 grant from Innovate UK and will be assisted by local 3D imaging company, CadScan.

Using off-the-shelf VR headsets, the aim is to make intensive rehabilitation more accessible and immediate. In turn, the VR solution could reduce the duration and cost of long-term care while making rehab programmes more adaptable.

The devices can be operated with minimal supervision, and it goes without saying that practising physical processes in the virtual world carries less risk to patients who are vulnerable both physically and psychologically.

It’s also easier to track their recovery progress and pinpoint areas that require closer attention. “Patients will be able to measure how well their cognitive abilities are improving, building confidence in their ability to perform everyday tasks and reducing the psychological trauma often associated with the condition,” said Professor Nigel John from the University of Chester.

The UK spends around £9 billion every year caring for stroke sufferers. Fifty percent of that goes toward direct formal care. An influx of VR systems may sound like an expensive solution beyond the budget of most hospitals, but it could turn out to be a viable alternative for the future.

“The purpose of rehabilitation is to stimulate brain recovery through the stimulus of new areas that compensate for the area of damage. It can be tedious for many patients and expensive to provide. As a result, some of them may not receive the amount of specialist therapy time they actually need,” said Professor Kausik Chatterjee, consultant physician at the Countess of Chester Hospital.

“This is a problem not only for the NHS, but also for most of the healthcare system across the globe. This project is exciting in its ambition – both in terms of the benefit to the patient, and potential financial savings too.”

Plus: Researchers unveil ‘smart sticker’ for remote health monitoring

In related IoT health news, a research team at Purdue University, Indiana, have developed a smart sticker capable of remotely monitoring the health of heart patients.

The smart stickers’ largely cellulose structure means they are biocompatible and relatively inexpensive, explains the team’s research paper, published in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

The smart stickers could be used internally, implanted onto internal organs to transmit data without causing adverse reactions. The researchers also suggest that athletes could use the technology to monitor health while exercising to provide alerts in real time.

To begin with, though, most applications are external. Ramses Martinez, Purdue University assistant professor of Industrial Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, said, “For the first time, we have created wearable electronic devices that someone can easily attach to their skin and are made out of paper to lower the cost of personalised medicine.

“The low cost of these wearable devices and their compatibility with large-scale manufacturing techniques will enable the quick adoption of these new fully disposable, wearable sensors in a variety of healthcare applications requiring single-use diagnostic systems,” he added.

Internet of Business says

The exploratory use of connected technologies in healthcare, including AI, wearables, and augmented and virtual reality, is booming and holds out great promise for the future, especially when it comes to the treatment of serious and debilitating conditions.

The wearables market in particular is seeing extensive innovation. For example, earlier this year we reported on how researchers have developed a smart sticking plaster that can monitor a patient’s blood pressure. Made of silicon elastomer, the postage-stamp sized wearable works by sending ultrasonic waves into the skin, which reflect off the wearer’s bodily tissues and blood.

In theory, the patch could be used to monitor patients at home, with the data collected over time and analysed on a laptop. As well as avoiding the need for multiple appointments, uncomfortable pressure tests, and invasive procedures, the wearable may help cut costs and reduce the risk of infection.

The system is being developed at the University of California, San Diego.