Canada’s oldest avatars: Making healthcare smarter

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Homes and condos wired with sensors and remotely monitored by clinicians could signal a whole new approach to healthcare that gives Canadian seniors the support they need to age safely at home.

Health care organizations across Canada are urgently seeking creative new ways to deliver affordable, high-quality healthcare to the elderly that will enable them to live independently longer. According to Statistics Canada, the number of Canadian seniors will increase from 4.2 million from 2005 to 9.8 million by 2036.

Technology can play a key role in addressing how the health care system can deliver better care, more efficiently, to this expanding – and expensive – demographic.

A new pilot project called the “Smart Condo” is one of the world’s most advanced examples of remote monitoring capability to assist seniors in aging in the right place. Since June 2011, University of Alberta researchers have been using IBM software to study elderly clients who volunteered to stay in a model, self-contained “independent living suite” at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton. The team outfitted the suite with sensors and smart devices that collect and track information about the daily activities of the seniors. Tiny sensors were embedded on cupboard, bathroom and bedroom doors, kitchen appliances and light fixtures throughout the suite.

Supported by IBM Centre for Advanced Studies Alberta, this unique pilot is aimed at providing Health-Science Education Research Consortium researchers at the University of Alberta with insights on how to enable Canada’s aging population to remain at home. Clinically relevant information is recorded to improve their health and wellbeing.

A permanent Smart Condo installation is currently being completed inside the University of Alberta’s new Edmonton Clinic Health Academy (ECHA). The installation will be housed in the Smart Condo simulation space of ECHA and will provide the team with a long-term space in which to conduct a systematic suite of experiments on the use of novel technologies to support people with chronic conditions at home.

IBM WebSphere Sensor Events software collects and fuses sensor data from a range of medical and physical inputs – from heart-rate and body weight to electricity consumption and the use of doors, furniture, light switches and appliances. The analysis results are also used to animate an avatar of the occupant that mirrors their activities in a virtual version of the apartment. Advanced inferencing algorithms accurately recognize the activities of the condo occupants and can potentially identify adverse events.

The use of avatars and 3D imaging counters the potential ‘Big Brother’ effect that could arise from intrusive video system recording of the occupants’ activities, while at the same time providing an intuitive view of their activities.

Designed to help patients rehabilitate after conditions such as stroke or fractures, the Smart Condo data stream is analyzed to determine if medications are being taken as prescribed or if there are indications a patient is in need of a revised therapy regimen. For instance, a senior who goes to the kitchen and opens, shuts, then reopens cupboard doors but doesn’t turn on the water faucet or touch the stove settings may have a cognitive impairment.

“It is clinically relevant to know the regular activity level of a patient,” says Eleni Stroulia, researcher and chair of Service Systems Management at the University of Alberta. “Exceptions from regular patterns usually signal some need to investigate.”

All data from the pilot is recorded to provide ongoing resident assessment and observation to ensure the safety of individual. Health care professionals who receive a live stream of a patient’s activity could be alerted to intervene in case a harmful event happened. In response, they could conduct an in-house visit, or they could even go in the virtual world to communicate with the patient there.

The Smart Condo data will be used to understand how to make better use of health care resources, enable better communication and collaboration among clients, family members and providers, and contribute to early intervention and long-term management of chronic diseases. Researchers and clinicians will also learn how to support older people for independent living, and extend the length of time seniors are able to live in their homes.

“We know data is being generated all the time, but harnessing, aggregating, analyzing and gaining insights from it have been challenging,” Dr. Stroulia notes. “Viewing data as diverse as heart rate monitor and electrical consumption independently, out of context, means very little. The IBM software enables us to visualize data and actually see a patient’s ability to function independently, so clinicians can better observe the patients and, if necessary intervene. It has provided visibility to the physical world in a completely novel way.”

In the future, Dr. Stroulia imagines patients could agree to wear heart-rate or blood-glucose monitors in their homes. If they took their insulin or heart medications at the right time, their heart beat or blood sugar levels could be further evidence of compliance with the medical regime.

Companies building new facilities for seniors could use sensors to monitor patients with more complex health problems. The sensors could help staff determine the needs of the residents while still giving them some independence.

Keeping seniors at home longer has enormous implications for the future of healthcare in Canada as our population ages. Instrumented, intelligent and integrated, the Smart Condo is an important step in making that goal a reality.