MU technology helps detect early signs of risks for seniors

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COLUMBIA - Two MU studies demonstrate using non-invasive and non-contact sensors with the ability to capture early signs of health changes or problems for aged people. The bed sensors capture data on heart rate, respiration rate, and overall cardiac activity, and the radar monitors walking speed. 

The project began installing sensor equipment into Tiger Place in Columbia in fall of 2005, and MU has a study going on now to test the technology in over a dozen senior houses in Missouri, including private homes in Columbia, Jefferson City, Fulton and Bonneville.

"We're seeing a lot of interest in this technology not just in Missouri, but on a national level, and really an international level as well. Because so many places are suffering with this changing demographic, where our society is becoming more trending towards an aging population," Marjorie Skubic, professor of MU electrical and computer engineering and director of MU's Center for Eldercare and Rehabilitation Technology, said.

The technology sends out health alerts to clinical staff like nurses and social workers, and clinical staff could determine if they need to intervene.

"If we can detect very early signs of illnesses and health change, people can get interventions that help solve these health problems when they are still small before they become big major health problems," Skubic said.

Skubic said her team found that those residents who have the sensors installed are able to stay in Tiger Place 1.7 years longer than the residents that do not have the sensor.

"It allows us to be less intrusive with our care and still provide great oversight and keep people safe," Eric Minturn, the executive director of Tiger Place, said.

The technology records what the user's normal routine is, and it will put up a red flag in the system if there's a change. The alert would go to the care providers via email.

Skubic said the other technologies out there require people to wear things and press buttons.

"If you are depending on a person to press the button, sometimes that isn't possible. There are plenty of instances of people that have these devices and simply don't wear them or they are not able to press the button if they were to fall," Skubic said.

Most of the funding for this project is from National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, and the total funding is about $10 million.

Skubic said a company already licensed the technology to sustain the project and it is in the process of commercializing the technology by making it available to senior housing sites and hospitals.

"One of the other things that we would like to do is to test this out and scale up studies with other kinds of populations," Skubic said.

She said veterans, rural communities and large urban groups are potential target populations.

George Hage, a 93-year-old resident in Tiger Place, is in one of the earliest test groups using the technology.

"It was very comfortable, and those sensors didn't affect me. I know they are there, but that's it," Hage said.