UTA Nursing and Engineering departments’ combined research efforts may help increase the time elderly citizens can live in their own homes instead of going to a retirement home. 

The departments are working on a technology called Smart Care, which aims to convert regular household items, such as cups, mirrors and the floor into devices that can check for different health properties, including blood sugar levels and blood pressure.

“The idea is to put this technology in a small home,” nursing assistant professor Kathryn Daniel said. “This provides a way of getting regular health check-ups while staying in their own home. Many people don’t want to go to a retirement home.”

Since 2010, the research received a $634,000 federally funded grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration and an additional $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. 

Daniel said a lot of today’s technology requires the user to engage and learn how to use it.

“To use a Glucometer, for example, you have to learn and remember how to prick your finger,” she said. “Studies show that 50 percent of the people who are 80 years and older have cognitive impairments that makes it harder and harder to remember.”

Installing the devices into regular household items will not require elderly people to remember getting a health care check-up, Daniel said.

“That is why we are trying to make it a part of their environment,” she said. “When they pick up their cup, their blood pressure is automatically measured.”

Sensors installed in the devices measure the needed properties, said computer science and engineering associate professor Manfred Huber.

The Smart Care floor will help analyze the balance and muscle strength in the body, Huber said.

“Falling is one of the biggest risk factors among old people,” he said. “The sensors on the floor will measure and analyze balances and record the changes over time, and give information about muscle tone.”

The Smart Care mirror has a microscopic video camera on it to check skin color and hemoglobin content, said computer science doctoral student Timothy Dockins. Hemoglobin is the oxygen carrying part of blood.

“Certain diseases present themselves by change in skin color,” he said. “Hemoglobin and melanin are two important factors that contribute to skin color.”

To know if the change in skin color is because of melanin or hemoglobin, the team is using a method called Independent Component Analysis, Dockins said.

“If you’ve ever been to a cocktail party, you’d know that there is too much noise there and you can’t hear what the next person is talking to you [about]. Independent Component Analysis helps in extracting only the voice that you want to hear,” he said. “We are using the similar technique to see how much hemoglobin or melanin individually affects skin color change.”

The main challenge with the mirror is to ensure that the lighting remains the same because skin color depends on the room’s lighting, Dockins said.

“When pictures are taken every day, we need to have consistent conditions,” he said. “We cannot filter for a color unless the lighting is consistent.”

All the information the sensors collect will be sent to doctors or the patient’s family’s computers wirelessly, Huber said.

After extracting needed information, the computer will not decide the patient’s health status, Huber said.

“We don’t want the computer to make the diagnostics,” he said. “It will hint what the problem could possibly be and then the doctor will decide what the problem actually is.”

The main challenge in the project was to customize information according to each individual’s needs, Huber said.

“The challenge is to make the computer learn the patient’s health profile and know what’s normal for them,” he said. “What is abnormal for a person might be perfectly normal for another person.”

Testing the equipment is scheduled for early next year at the Christian Care Center’s Lakewood Village apartments in Fort Worth. The university can use it for free for the next five years.

The retirement home could be more expensive than a regular home, Huber said.

“This house could be more expensive than a regular one, but if the cost compared to how much a month in a nursing home costs, it would not make that much of a difference,” he said. “If the product is sold enough, then the price may come down.”

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