The high-tech future of healthcare: A digital health assistant in your home

May 9, 2013

The UK's healthcare system faces unprecedented challenges. Britain is the most obese nation in Europe and the country's ageing population is especially at risk from isolation, depression, strokes and fractures caused by falls in the home. A pioneering new collaboration hopes to address these issues by developing a 24/7 digital home health assistant.

An interdisciplinary (IRC) led by the University of Bristol together with the Universities of Southampton and Reading, has been awarded a grant by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) of £12 million. They will work in partnership with Bristol City Council, IBM, Toshiba and Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC).

The collaboration, known as SPHERE (Sensor Platform for HEalthcare in a Residential Environment), will develop home sensor systems to monitor the and wellbeing of the people living at home.

Professor Ian Craddock, Director of the IRC and who will be leading the interdisciplinary team, said: "SPHERE aims to have a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of people with a wide range of different health challenges.

"Families, carers, health and social services professionals involved in all stages of care will benefit from the system. SPHERE will address real world challenges by developing a practical technology to monitor people's health in the home environment, targeting health concerns such as; obesity, depression, stroke, falls, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal diseases. "

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said: "New British technologies are transforming healthcare and saving lives. In future, our smart phones will tell us when we are ill, controlling the spread of infectious diseases. As healthcare challenges become more complex, our world-class scientists are of finding the next generation solutions."

The IRC's vision is not to develop fundamentally-new sensor technologies for individual health conditions but rather to impact all these healthcare needs simultaneously through data-fusion and pattern-recognition from a common platform of non-medical/environmental sensors at home.

The system will be general-purpose, low-cost and accessible. Sensors will be entirely passive, requiring no action by the user and suitable for all patients, including the most vulnerable. An example of SPHERE's home sensor system could be to detect an overnight stroke or mini-stroke on waking, by detecting small changes in behaviour, expression and gait. It could also monitor a patient's compliance with their prescribed drugs.

Importantly, SPHERE will work hand-in-hand with the local community through Bristol City Council and its partners at KWMC. Leading clinicians in heart surgery, orthopaedics, stroke and Parkinson's disease, and recognised authorities on depression and obesity will also be involved with the project, along with the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research, Bristol Health Partners and Bristol's NIHR-funded Biomedical Research Units.

Professor Jeremy Tavaré, Deputy Director of the IRC, said: "The involvement of patients, carers, nurses and clinicians from the outset of this project will be key in ensuring acceptability of these exciting new technologies."

Once practical, user-friendly technologies have been developed further, they will be piloted in a large number of homes over extended periods of time.

The University of Southampton has UK-leading expertise and lab facilities for studying movement in stroke and Parkinson's disease rehabilitation, and also conducts research into falls and impaired balance.

Professor Ann Ashburn, Professor of Rehabilitation at the University of Southampton, said: "We have limited knowledge of the ways in which individuals move about, negotiate obstacles and on some occasions become unsteady and fall over in their homes. This exciting research opportunity will allow us to detect these situations and make major contributions to fall prevention among the older population."

Professional William Harwin in the School of Systems Engineering at the University of Reading, said: "The production of ubiquitous and unobtrusive 'passive sensors' is a key constituent part of this project. These sensors could be embedded in clothing or jewellery, or more ambitiously implanted, possibly in association with remedial surgery.

"Information from these sensors will monitor and track the signature movements of people in their homes and trigger a response in accordance with health needs. This will enable health care experts to respond as appropriate."

Rodric Yates, Program Director in IBM's Chief Technology Office, said: "Although healthcare budgets and changing demographics are creating serious challenges, the latest technological advances can help society keep pace with this environment. We were pleased to be invited by the University of Bristol to join this important project and will contribute by drawing upon some of the best examples from around the world in healthcare sensing, medical data collection and analysis, and the delivery of healthcare systems. Improving patient care in a cost-effective way and helping people stay independent, for longer, is an objective we share with the University and the city."

Cllr Barbara Janke, Cabinet Member for Connected Cities and Wellbeing said: "This is excellent news and further establishes Bristol's reputation as a leader in smart technologies. This award means that we've now attracted £26 million over the last year in funding for high tech development.

"I strongly believe this is due to our strong relationship with our partners in the city - universities, businesses and organisations such as the Knowle West Media Centre.

"This project is a great example of how we can harness the power of technology to bring real benefits to the health and wellbeing of residents, the elderly or infirm living at home. It will also build upon the wide practical experience of our Emergency Control Centre Careline service."

Explore further: Researchers use sensor technologies to remotely monitor aging adults' health

Related Stories

Researchers use sensor technologies to remotely monitor aging adults' health

June 14, 2012
Many adults wish to maintain their independence as they age, but health problems often require them to live in assisted-care facilities where they can be observed by medical professionals. Now, technologies developed by University ...

Researchers develop technology to support stroke patients

June 14, 2012
The University of Southampton, in collaboration with Roke Manor Research Ltd, has pioneered the use of Xbox computer technology to develop the world's first process that measures hand joint movement to help stroke patients ...

Care homes and NHS need to work together, research finds

January 15, 2013
Care homes and NHS healthcare services must work more closely together to improve levels of care for older people, according to a new study led by researchers at the University of Hertfordshire.

Recommended for you

Safety of medical devices not often evaluated by sex, age, or race

July 25, 2017
Researchers at Yale and the University of California-San Francisco have found that few medical devices are analyzed to consider the influence of their users' sex, age, or race on safety and effectiveness.

Why you should consider more than looks when choosing a fitness tracker

July 25, 2017
A UNSW study of five popular physical activity monitors, including Fitbit and Jawbone models, has found their accuracy differs with the speed of activity, and where they are worn.

Dog walking could be key to ensuring activity in later life

July 24, 2017
A new study has shown that regularly walking a dog boosts levels of physical activity in older people, especially during the winter.

Alcohol to claim 63,000 lives over next five years, experts warn

July 24, 2017
Alcohol consumption will cause 63,000 deaths in England over the next five years – the equivalent of 35 deaths a day – according to a new report from the University of Sheffield Alcohol Research Group.

App lets patients work alone or with others to prevent, monitor, and reverse chronic disease

July 24, 2017
Lack of patient adherence to treatment plans is a lingering, costly problem in the United States. But MIT Media Lab spinout Twine Health is proving that regular interventions from a patient's community of supporters can greatly ...

Alcohol boosts recall of earlier learning

July 24, 2017
Drinking alcohol improves memory for information learned before the drinking episode began, new research suggests.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.