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Breakthroughs in Eldercare Technology Are Saving Lives

Rehab by Robot? Don’t Diss the Idea Just Yet

Sixty years ago, Arne Larsson, a 43-year-old Swede with a failing heart, received the first implanted pacemaker. The concept of an artificial heart was considered so radical at the time that the operation had to be conducted in secret, and the technology was so new that the device had to be replaced hours later. Thanks to improvements in pacemakers, Larsson lived to be 86, surviving even the surgeon who saved his life.

Today, with a Fitbit on every wrist, Larsson’s device looks like a dinosaur. But it sparked a revolution in how medical professionals use technology to treat people with physical disabilities and injuries. Doctors are now confronting conditions once thought untreatable, such as stroke-induced mobility loss, with a slew of innovative medical technologies.

And the best part? If market and demographic trends represent our destiny, the biggest breakthroughs are yet to come.

Med Tech Is Taking Off

Consulting firm McKinsey & Company projects that medical device companies’ revenue will grow by 4-5 percent per year in the coming years — more than twice the growth rate of the broader market during the past five years. Add to that the U.S. Census Bureau’s projection that the number of Americans aged 65 and older in 2050 will be 83.7 million, almost double the population in 2012, and you’ve got a recipe for rapid advancements in medical technology.

There’s no need to wait until 2050, however, to find futuristic medical technologies improving patients’ lives. The Allure Group implemented EarlySense in its skilled nursing facilities, allowing the program’s sensors to track vital signs and movements to keep a closer eye on patients. The monitoring system, which enables care providers to track patient declines more quickly, has resulted in 80 percent fewer “code blue” events, 60 percent fewer bedsores, and a 45 percent reduction in patient falls.

“Our investment in the EarlySense technology underscores our ongoing commitment to provide the highest quality of care for more than 1,436 resident patients in our network,” said Joel Landau, The Allure Group’s CEO. “Improved patient monitoring and data collection alerts medical staff before serious problems occur so they can respond to patients’ specific needs swiftly and effectively. This is real progress in our evolution of advanced care.”

Fitness, Fun, and Therapy

Leading eldercare facilities, including The Allure Group, are incorporating other cutting-edge technological advancements such as robotics. OmniVR, developed by Accelerated Care Plus, uses virtual reality technology to make physical rehabilitation more engaging for seniors. Under the guidance of their therapist, OmniVR users perform seated exercises, practice wheelchair control, and more. At the end of each one- or two-player session, players receive a performance score and a series of goals for their next session.

Tomorrow, expect existing medical technologies to be combined in new, patient-centric ways. Fitness and rehabilitation tools like OmniVR, for instance, may interface with monitoring technologies like the aforementioned EarlySense. Without the hassles of contact nodes or tangle-prone wires, EarlySense measures heart rate, respiratory volume, and body position. Although EarlySense is typically used today to monitor those confined to their beds, it could provide data to patients and health professionals during VR workouts, preventing overexertion without encumbering motion.

“The key challe[nge] that we see in our business is the transition of care from hospital to home … This means that solutions that were originally developed for hospitals now need to be adapted to homes,” EarlySense CEO Avner Halperin told CEOToday.

Once-immobile individuals walk The Allure Group’s offices again thanks toin The Lokomat, a robotic exoskeleton that adapts to patients’ abilities and encourages a natural gait. Although just 40 percent of stroke survivors walk independently again, a study published in the Journal of Functional Neurology found that The Lokomat “significantly improved” not just the force, gait, and balance of a 54-year-old post-stroke patient, but also her mood and coping ability.

“Some patients are skeptical of The Lokomat at first,” Landau admitted. “But then they watch their friends walking around for the first time in years, and suddenly they can’t wait to get into it.”

Fueling the trend toward outpatient care is the therapeutic enhancement of exercise equipment. With these devices, patients will be able to resume their favorite physical activities sooner and with less pain. Rotator-cuff injuries will keep fewer former ballplayers from teaching the sport to their children. Joggers who suffer a torn ACL or a bout of Achilles tendonitis will be back on the track sooner.

For a peek at what these devices might look like, consider the AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill. With an optional analytics platform, AlterG’s treadmill reduces gravitational forces through an “unweighting” system, which can decrease in 1 percent increments a patient’s felt weight, lowering to as little as 20 percent of his actual weight. Therapists can then use its real-time gait analysis to safely add weight until the patient can resume running or walking without assistance.

A Bot on Your Back

Today and in the future, physical therapy patients must do some of the work at home. “One of the primary issues with therapy is that [patients] aren’t getting enough of it,” Ayanna Howard, professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, explained to MIT Technology Review. “For it to be effective, you need to do it every day.”

To help those undergoing therapy maintain their routine, Howard and others at Georgia Tech are piloting humanoid robots that provide verbal reminders and visual cues. In a trial last year, Howard asked a few lucky patients to take home Darwin, a miniature robot therapist that offers words of encouragement, monitors movements, and demonstrates the correct form for assigned exercises. With just one exception, the researchers found that Darwin significantly increased patients’ physical activity levels.

For seniors and others who receive physical therapy, robotic devices might be just what the doctor ordered. Whether it’s virtual entertainment, exercise reminders, metric monitoring, or motion assistance, today’s medical technologies are filling that prescription. Tomorrow, considering how far we’ve come since the first pacemaker, they might even be writing it.

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