Engineering Students Work with Elderly Patients to Design Novel Health Management Technologies

Engineering Students Work with Elderly Patients to Design Novel Health Management Technologies

Cambridge Consultants shared recommendations on how to increase adoption of new connected health technologies that will help to improve wellness among the nation's growing elderly population. The findings were based on field research conducted by students from the Tufts University School of Engineering and individual interviews with elderly patients and their healthcare providers.

As part of an engineering design class supported with research funding from Cambridge Consultants, the students met with residents and staff over a period of months at Brookhaven at Lexington, a life care facility in Lexington, MA, to find ways to make new healthcare technologies more user-friendly for older populations. With Baby Boomers turning 65 next year and the elderly population expected to double in the next twenty years, innovative connected health solutions could provide aging adults the tools to better manage their own health issues, which would in turn reduce hospital visits, decrease costs and increase patient health.

"The ballooning elderly population, unwieldy costs of healthcare, and the growing market for preventative care, indicate the pressing need for a new healthcare vision. It is clear that technology can play an important role in healthcare, but we need to make it more accessible to all ages and demographics, especially to our growing population of seniors," said Melanie Turieo, Principal Human Factors Engineer at Cambridge Consultants. "A patient-centered and coordinated approach to healthcare could save billions, so studies such as this one are critical in helping to define the next stage of the connected health revolution."

As part of the study, students developed and tested several user-friendly 'health dashboard' prototypes to help determine how elderly patients might best interact and potentially even embrace new technology. The students developed several prototypes based on their research work with the elderly participants, who collectively expressed sensitivities to privacy, a social stigma around cell phones and PDAs, nearly unanimous problems with eyesight and an unwillingness to mine through inessential data. Based on focus groups that tested potential technology prototypes, the students' recommendation for a final design was a handheld device with a physical rotary dial and a larger dock that could sit on a counter or table.

The handheld device was designed to be used by seniors on the go. For example, users could enter the number of miles walked as part of a "diet and exercise" function, or record and receive reminders on when they need take their medication via a "medication" function. The dock interface was developed as a companion piece for the dial, and would be used as a long-term in-home storage and viewing center, where seniors could update vital sign readings using sensors, access an "interactive pillbox" for reference medical information, and quickly review overviews of current health data.

"This project was a unique one for our students as it presented an opportunity for them to collaborate with industry. It also gave our students the real-life experience of getting out of the classroom and working in the field with our target population," said Dan Hannon, Professor of the Practice in Tufts School of Engineering's Department of Mechanical Engineering. "Studies such as this demonstrate the importance of the next generation of innovators, such as our students, working in collaboration with the population that will actually be interacting with these new and emerging technologies."

"We gathered valuable data from our interviews and interaction with the residents at Brookhaven at Lexington, and we are so grateful for their participation," added Leslie Johnston, a graduate of Tufts University School of Engineering and a member of the project team. "The user groups were very engaged and provided insightful feedback that we incorporated into all of our prototypes. For example, the bulk of the elderly participants were really against using any kind of cell phone or BlackBerry-type device, because it is considered rude to use in public."

Building on its groundbreaking work in connected health and human factors, Cambridge Consultants advised the student project team during its work on the potential design prototypes on the "health dashboard" project. Cambridge Consultants has developed several wireless-based applications that are designed to connect patients and their treatment devices, such as inhalers, with healthcare support professionals and a range of online applications. This connected health approach is exemplified in the company's Vena-enabled solutions, which allow healthcare specialists to monitor medication adherence, reduce long-term treatment costs, and improve patient access to, and interaction with, healthcare providers.

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