At first glance, the blue, plastic container marked with letters representing the days of the week looks like an ordinary pill dispenser many seniors use to keep on schedule with their medication doses.
It is, indeed, a pill dispenser, with its seven individually marked compartments, but that's where its ordinariness ends. When one of the tiny compartments is opened, a signal is sent wirelessly to a computer system that records medications taken. What makes the device truly different is that it is an intelligent system that keeps track of the medications taken and knows when the senior is nearby, reminding him only when the reminder is needed and likely to be effective.
"The data generated by the MedTracker can also be used to recognize if the senior has begun to need more assistance with their medication, and may even be helpful in identifying early memory changes" says Tamara Hayes, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Oregon Health & Science University's OGI School of Science and Engineering, and lead investigator on the MedTracker project.
The intelligent MedTracker pill box is one of a handful of innovative devices OHSU researchers are developing to unobtrusively monitor how seniors go about their day-to-day lives in their homes. The technologies are an important part of the research being conducted within the National Institutes of Health-funded center ORCATECH, or Oregon Roybal Center for Aging & Technology.
ORCATECH, a collaboration of academic, industry and community partners, is researching and developing technology to assess how seniors function in their home environment. The goal is to help them maintain their independence, and optimize their health and quality of life, by discretely collecting data for intelligent computing systems that can detect changes in health long before they would affect the quality of life of the elders and their caregivers. The ultimate goal is for the integrated intelligent systems to use the information for health coaching, to encourage physical and mental exercise, and for delivery of health care. The future success of this technology is based on adapting to each individual's situation.
The technology research is done within ORCATECH's Point of Care Laboratory. The Point of Care Laboratory, directed by Misha Pavel, Ph.D., professor of biomedical engineering at the OGI School of Science and Engineering, is located at OHSU's West Campus in Hillsboro. Scientists there are creating unique artificial intelligence algorithms that combine information from a variety of sensors and tracking devices placed throughout the homes of seniors, to assess situations in which mobility or cognition problems may be occurring, and to provide intervention and health coaching to seniors to assure their health care needs are being met. "Our goal is to allow people to live longer, healthier and higher quality lives in their own homes," Pavel said.
ORCATECH has been successful at bringing together a multidisciplinary team of researchers, care providers, industrial partners and elders themselves in working on technical and social solutions for enabling seniors to maintain their independence and quality of life as they age. ORCATECH investigators from OHSU, together with several of their industrial partners, are showing examples of their integrated monitoring system at the 2005 White House Conference on Aging in Washington, D.C., this week through Wednesday. The intent of the once-a-decade event is to make policy recommendations on aging to the president and Congress, and to assist the public and private sectors in promoting dignity, health, independence and economic security of current and future generations of older persons.
The OHSU exhibit will showcase intelligent walkers and canes that detect balance changes and sound alerts or signals to encourage appropriate use, as well as an integrated system using the MedTracker device. OHSU researchers also will demonstrate technology developed in collaboration with several of their ORCATECH partners, including a bed equipped with weight sensors that tracks sleep patterns as part of an Elite Care exhibit; sensors used to track movement in homes, developed with HomeFree Inc.; and adaptive computer games that monitor cognitive performance and potentially improves seniors' cognitive skills, as part of a Spry Learning Co. Inc. exhibit.
"We have explored several approaches to cognitive monitoring that take advantage of our ability to collect frequent data in a natural environment, ranging from walking speed to analyzing routine computer interactions," says Holly Jimison, associate professor of medical informatics and clinical epidemiology, OHSU School of Medicine. These approaches have shown promising results for the early detection of dementia. Technologies originally tested in the Point of Care Laboratory are now being installed in a "living laboratory network" of homes in residential retirement communities and individual homes in Oregon.
This deployment in the field is an essential component of the ORCATECH vision. "We want people to be as independent as possible, as long as possible," said ORCATECH's director, Jeffrey Kaye, M.D., OHSU professor of neurology and biomedical engineering, director of OHSU's Layton Aging and Alzheimer's Disease Center. "It is very important that the future technology is based on sound principles and solid clinical evidence obtained in longitudinal studies." By bringing together caregivers, researchers and manufacturers, as well as seniors themselves who will participate in the system design, ORCATECH hopes to develop solutions that truly meet the goal of "aging in place".
ORCATECH recently received a five-year, $1.7 million grant from the National Institute on Aging. It is one of six new Roybal Centers for Research on Applied Gerontology, joining four others established after Congress authorized funding for the program, named after Edward R. Roybal, former chairman of the House Select Committee on Aging, in 1993. The centers are designed to move promising social and behavioral research findings out of the laboratory and into programs, practices and policies that improve the lives of older people and the capacity of society to adapt to aging. Through the combination of clinical evidence with innovative technology, ORCATECH is delivering innovative solutions for future aging.