BBH speaks to Christopher James, professor of biomedical engineering at University of Warwick, about how wearable technologies could help people live independently for longer
The global obsession with smart technology could hold the key to revolutionising health and social care services, according to experts.
Christopher James, professor of biomedical engineering at University of Warwick, is currently working on research into long-term behaviour monitoring via mobile technology – a move he claims could help vulnerable people to stay independent for longer.
We are taking healthcare into communities and the big enabler here is technology and, in particular, mobile technology
Also chairman of The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS) UK and Ireland chapter; he hopes the development of smart watch-based wearable technology will provide health and care providers with a new tool.
He told BBH: “My work looks at the brain and behaviour, taking signals from the brain to make diagnoses on the progression of certain conditions, such as epilepsy. This can tell us what parts of the brain are not working properly, for example.
“Technology has been invented that can move a cursor on a screen to the left just because a person thinks left. The technology picks up on their brain activity.
“I was really interested to see how we could take this kind of approach and use it to help people to live their lives more independently for longer.”
His research comes at a time when healthcare services are changing and the focus is moving from healing medical conditions to promoting wellbeing and maintaining good health.
James said: “It’s a very different model now and a different way of treating people.
“We are taking healthcare into communities and the big enabler here is technology and, in particular, mobile technology.”
Using a smart watch in this way we can get measurement of relatively high quality – a stream of data from which we can determine individual condition signatures
A large number of people now use smart phones, and James and his team are using this as a basis for their research.
“Across almost all levels of society people are using smart technology to collect data and interact with it. Phones now have accelerometers – which sense movement of the phone and change the screen orientation - and from this sort of app we can start to see patterns of behaviour.”
The researchers are primarily looking at ways to use smart technology to help the elderly and people with mental health problems.
“People do not want to have to go into care homes until the time is right,” said James. “But at the same time, if they are vulnerable and are living at home, then we need to be able to see how well they are doing and to do this we need to observe their behaviour in an unobtrusive way.
“If they usually wake up at 8am, make a cup of tea, and then sit down until lunchtime, we need to know if this routine changes as it could suggest there is a problem. This is where wearable technologies can help.”
We do not want to interrupt people’s lives, but make them easier and safer, so we want to delivery this technology in a format that they will find easy to use
The project has tested this technology using off-the-shelf smart watch solutions from China and adapted them to suit the UK market.
James explains: “It’s similar to other smart watches, but it’s got all the features of an android phone, such as wifi, Bluetooth, an accelerometer, and GPS.
“We do not want to interrupt people’s lives, but make them easier and safer, so we want to delivery this technology in a format that they will find easy to use.
“Using a smart watch in this way we can get measurement of relatively high quality – a stream of data from which we can determine individual condition signatures. For example, if an elderly person’s routine is disturbed, we want to raise attention.
“Another area we see this working well is in mental health and, in particular, bipolar.
“Someone with bipolar does not see a sudden change, but one that happens gradually over time. The idea is if they wear this watch they can pick up on patterns and see changes that might point to a problem.
“This information can then be fed back to medical or care specialists, or members of the person’s family.”
The cost of the technology has reduced considerably over the past few years, with the basic watches now costing less than £100, making this an affordable intervention for the NHS and social services.
It is an exciting development and one we think could help the UK’s health and social care system immensely
“Monitoring technology used to involve big clunky boxes, but this is basically the size of a matchbox and it’s getting smaller all the time.
“We are trying to simplify it so people want to get involved.”
The only downside currently is that the watches need to be charged, which means having to take them off. The team is looking at ways to address this.
“There is a huge market for this type of thing and we want to find off-the-shelf solutions that are easily updated.
“We have already carried out some limited trials, but we are now looking to take this to the next level.
“It is an exciting development and one we think could help the UK’s health and social care system immensely.”