New trial means wearable technology may prevent falls

Ray Fleming of Adelaide and AmbIGeM Trial Coordinator,Dr Joanne Dollard

Researchers at Curtin University and the University of Adelaide have begun a project to test wearable technology that aims to reduce the enormous toll of falls among older Australians in hospitals.

Professor Keith Hill of Curtin University says on average a fall in hospital extends the length of stay by eight days and increases health care costs by $6500.

Nearly 70 per cent of falls happen to the over 75s, almost half with cognitive impairment.

Current fall prevention programs in hospitals are of limited effectiveness and the number of falls is increasing.

At present wards with frail older people experience some eight falls per 1000 patient bed-days (PBD) compared to 4.8 falls/PBD for the hospital overall.

“Many falls in hospitals shouldn’t happen, but they do. Patients are at increased risk from the reason they are in hospital in addition to their existing risk of fall,” said Professor Hill.

The trial will test the Ambient Intelligent Geriatric Management system (AmbIGeM) which consists of a sensor incorporated into clothing.

The AmbIGeM senses movements that might increase the wearer’s risk of falling, as well as alerting staff if a patient in their care is doing something that may put them at risk, such as walking to the bathroom themselves when they should have staff supervision.

The AmbIGeM device is fitted in the pocket of a singlet close to the chest.

It contains accelerometers and sensors for measuring movement patterns and distance from receiving stations in the roof, and reports risky movements to staff, including details of patient, location and what they are doing.

“The cost of equipping several high falls risk wards in a hospital with sensors is around $200,000 but the AmbIGeM device itself costs only around $2 plus the singlet. This is low in relation to the benefits obtained,” he said.

The AmbIGeM system can be personalised to suit individual needs and a second device can be incorporated into walking aids.

If the patient is supposed to use a walking aid but starts to walk without one, it warns nursing staff.

Staff carry a smart phone with an App that alerts them to attend and assist the patient to reduce any risk arising from their actions.

In a trial planned for two wards at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, patients wearing the device will be compared with those receiving standard care.

All participants are over 65 and some will have cognitive impairment, others will be from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

The trial will calculate the number of falls per participant bed days for patients with and without the AmbIGeM and falls that cause injury.

In addition it will estimate the cost-benefits of using the AmbIGeM on eligible patients both in hospital and for three months after discharge.

Professor Hill says the AmbIGeM could also be adopted in aged care homes where there is a limited area to cover and residents are at increased risk of fall.

“Managing falls is important. When someone has a fall they lose confidence, which results in them limiting their activity. This increases the risk of further falls,” he said.

AmbIGeM is being trialed as part of a collaboration with Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, The Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the University of Adelaide.

The project is funded by a $1.6 million NHMRC grant.