Intel Health's approach to elderly care


Some experts are predicting the U.S. will need million nurses and 200,000 doctors by 2020. Early detection, prevention and support for care givers will become even more crucial to our healthcare system.

From the outside, it looks like a pretty typical office building, complete with ordinary cubicles inside. But the research work here is expected to influence the future care of our parents and ourselves.

The Intel Digital Health Lab is staffed by 60 social scientists, engineers and designers outside Portland, and at an overseas facility in Ireland. Their work begins with ethnology, studying how people live, work and play.

"We try not to go in with preconceived notions of what technology we want to focus on or what the solution is. We're really just trying to in and walk a mile in someone else's shoes and understand their lives and their needs," said Intel Digital Health Group director Eric Dishman.

After spending time in 1,000 homes in 20 countries, they have developed prototype technology they hope will keep elders living independently, in their homes.

"We don't know it, but we believe through our research, 50 percent or more of the falls that occur could be prevented if we could just understand subtle changes that are occurring in how you walk or how you stand at the sink in front of your kitchen," said Dishman.

An Intel video shows a device called the magic carpet. It's equipped with a network of sensors to track a person's gait and stride while walking or one's natural sway, the subtle rocking of our feet while standing still.

Early detection of a change in stability could prevent a fall -- a fall possibly caused by muscle atrophy or side effects from medicine.

With an at-home testing device for Parkinson's disease, patients are commonly tested only once a year for 15 minutes. But that might not reflect variances in a patient's tremors over time.

"So all we did was take a bunch of tests that are done in the clinic, put them in the guts of a laptop-like device and said, let's collect data at home," said Dishman.

Intel's lab isn't trying to replace doctors and nurses. Instead, it's trying to bring technology into the home to give patients and caregivers new tools for monitoring.

Dishman acknowledges the influence of retired Intel CEO Andy grove. Grove has Parkinson's and has funded some of the lab's work.

Grove brands the PC and ATM "disruptive technologies" for shaking up entire industries and how they work.

"So, too, we have to get health care to come into the 21st century and these disruptive technologies that changed all these other industries need to change health care and make it more personal, empower baby boomers to take control of their own health and wellness and use the cell phones, the PC's, the TV's that are already interconnected anyway to help do that," said Dishman.

Intel isn't trying to develop breakthrough technology as much as use existing and low-cost devices, such as RFID chips -- chips that are used today to track shipments.

Intel uses them to monitor a person's daily activities to check if they've taken their medications.

"So what we did was put some simple sensors in the home and some pretty sophisticated software on the back end that started to look for patterns of when you take your medication, but more importantly, when those patterns change so that we can prompt you at an appropriate moment when we think you're going to forget," said product incubation and prototyping director Steve Agritelley.

Research needs to be expanded. These devices are still prototypes, but the Intel team hopes it will lead to a sea change in independent living for the elderly and for those who care for them.

"And if it's not, we're going to be in an economic catastrophe because we're going to be putting these people into institutions that are already overbooked and under funded," said Dishman.

Dishman estimates that the U.S. is perhaps 20 years behind on developing this kind of technology. And for that reason, a consortium of long-term care providers, technology companies and academia are urging Congress to create a national commission to pave the way for more funding for this kind of research.

To read more about Intel's Health new technology, click on The Back Story.

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