Chris Netherton

Chris Netherton

Managing Director, Microtest

Falls cost the NHS over £2 billion a year and lead to a diminished quality of life for thousands of elderly sufferers. Now clever technologies are offering new ways of averting these damaging impacts.

In May of this year, I wrote about the work that Microtest was doing to help GP practices improve their treatment of older, frail citizens. Our Electronic Frailty Index (eFI) tool allows GP practices to identify those patients in their care who are aged 65 and over and are living with moderate to severe frailty. The GP can then devise appropriate treatment plans that are tailored to their needs.

Every year up to

0%

of over 65s have a fall.

Since I wrote that piece, two fascinating new developments have taken place.

Every year up to 30% of people aged over 65 suffer a fall – one that could potentially cause serious injury or death. This month, the NHS has announced that it will be trialling new equipment specially designed to analyse the way that patients walk, so that physiotherapy can be planned to address their specific issues and reduce their risk of a fall.

Equipment like this was previously only available in a laboratory, which doesn’t give a reliable reading of a patient’s ‘normal’ behaviour. But now, small and lightweight motion sensors have been invented which can be attached to a patient’s legs. As they walk, data on the quality of their movement and balance is recorded and analysed by an app.

This type of sensor technology was originally developed by NASA and was later used by the CGI film industry to carry out motion capture. Now that it has been miniaturised it has led to this novel use in healthcare which could potentially open up new forms of preventative treatments. It can also be used to identify physical changes to the home environment of a patient which could minimise their risk of a fall.

Meanwhile, scientists in Switzerland have been conducting trials on a carbon fibre ‘stumble suit’ which has been specifically designed to prevent falls in the elderly. The suit is made up of a lightweight exoskeleton attached to the hips and legs, with in-built sensors which automatically analyse the person’s movement.

If the system detects that you are about to topple over, it instantly adjusts your weight distribution and posture to counteract this and to help you regain your balance. The system can easily be adjusted according to the height and weight of the individual patient. Although the prototype stumble suit is quite bulky, work is underway on an unobtrusive, lighter weight version which could be worn under a patient’s normal clothing. One of the team involved in its development, Professor Nicola Vitello, commented:

“This work paves the way for imagining a completely new generation of exoskeletons that will actually be effective outside of research laboratories, thanks to their ability to augment users’ movement and make their mobility more stable and safe.”

It is inspiring to see these imaginative new solutions to the problems associated with frailty and to hear about the brilliant thinking that has gone into them. It is also really exciting to see how technology is creating new ways to protect the independence and quality of life of our older citizens.

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