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Home Health Technology Strives to Keep Elders Independent

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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, July 25, 2011

Doris Herrilson is eighty-seven years old. She rolls around her one-bedroom apartment in a wheelchair. Her mind is as fit as someone half her age, her body is not.

HERRILSON: I had a bad back. and then of course after I moved in here, last year I fell and broke my hip. Then I had a mastectomy. Then I had bronchitis. I'm fine now, I just keep going.

Herrilson lives in an assisted living residence at Eskaton Village in Roseville.  She loves it. The staff helps her with everything from showering to making her bed. Her husband died about eight years ago. She's lived alone here for three and a half.

0725PB DorisHERRILSON: I have everything I need. I love my apartment. The food is great and the help is wonderful.

A couple of years ago, Eskaton installed a motion sensor system called QuietCare in Doris's apartment. Palm-sized devices attachd to her doorframe use infra-red technology to gather information. Things like the number and length of her bathroom visits, the temperature in her room... how often she opens the refrigerator, and when she leaves the apartment.

HERRILSON: At first I thought, oh, it's going to be watching everything I do. But you forget about it, really.

QuietCare doesn't include any recording or tracking devices. It's owned by a GE-Intel venture called Care Innovations, say QuietCare's minimally invasive. Caretakers say it's a powerful tool. The technology learns the resident's behaviors. The tube-like devices send off data, which ends up on an off-site server. Software analyses the data and puts it online for people like Ben Kwock, a nurse practitioner at Eskaton. He checks it on his computer every morning.

KWOCK: … this one took two trips to the refrigerator.

His screen is filled with colorful lines of dots.

KWOCK: And we're looking at green dots, that means everything's okee dokee.

But what Kwock looks for are the yellow and red dots - those indicate deviations from a person's normal behavior.  What's normal is determined by the software and the caretaker. If someone's spent too long in the bathroom, or has gone more times than usual, there may be a problem.

KWOCK: If we can determine whether the residents has a urinary tract infection, we can help prevent falls. A lot of times people with urinary tract infections are more prone to balance issues or more prone to falls. And we want to prevent falls.0725PB Eskaton

KWOCK: "Good morning!"

Based on what QuietCare tells him, Kwock or another caretaker makes the rounds at Eskaton each morning to check in.

KWOCK: "How are you? No problems?"

He says the extra information makes his job easier, but doesn't substitute for personal contact.

KWOCK: It's kind of like having extra eyes or extra caregivers to give me extra information to report changes in the persons either health or behavior to their family and also to the residents' doctors.

If QuietCare senses an emergency, it alerts the caretaker by phone or pager. But the technology can't detect everything - when Doris fell and broke her hip last year, she had to drag herself on her elbows to the phone.

HERRILSON: But I went down so fast I was on the floor and so… it didn't… maybe they will work on that and get to that eventually.

Care Innovations says it will continue to refine the technology. But there are people who raise questions about home health monitoring. Lee Tien is an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He sees the technology as a form of surveillance.

TIEN: Any kind of monitoring over time, that has any kind of smartness to it, where it's able to infer patterns of behavior, there are going to be concerns about the privacy and sensitivity of that data.

Laws protect medical privacy and set data marketing rules, but as health care grows more hi-tech and home-based, home health monitoring may need a closer look.

Click and drag below to see a panoramic view of Doris' appartment. Sensors are highlighted with red circles.

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