For elderly people living on their own, or even in individual rooms in residential care homes, falls are an ever-present risk. A fall can leave them incapacitated or unconscious, unable to summon emergency help. Being able to call for immediate medical help after a fall is critical. Every minute matters. In some cases, it can literally be a matter of life or death.
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As a result of the work of a European Union (EU)-funded research project, called FALLWATCH, a solution to the problem has now been developed - the world’s first miniaturised, wearable, telecommunicating fall detection device. Triangular in shape, measuring just 5cm along each side and less than 2cm thick, the ’patch‘-type device is attached to the user’s skin with special medical adhesive film and can be worn for up to 30 days before changing it. It thus overcomes one of the crucial disadvantages of existing alarm systems, namely the fact that they need to be worn as bracelets or as necklaces and are all too often left unworn on the bedside table.
Functioning fully automatically, the miniature device provides the answer to another drawback of existing systems. Many of them depend on the user being able to press the alert button manually - something they may be incapable of after the fall.
Already in commercial production under the name Vigi'Fall®, and put into operation by Europ Assistance, one of the FALLWATCH consortium members, the new device marks a major step forward in ensuring that help arrives as promptly as possible after a fall. Nor do its capabilities stop there. As a result of being attached directly to the skin, the patch is able to monitor the patient’s heartbeat and relay this information to the medical team as well.
Backed by €1.1 million funding provided under the European Union’s 7th Research Framework Programme (FP7), the two-and-a-half year FALLWATCH project was based on an original concept developed by a doctor working in the emergency department of the Cochin Hospital in Paris, Dr Jean-Eric Lundy.
In close cooperation with Professor Norbert Noury, of University Joseph Fourier, Grenoble, Dr Lundy was inspired to invent a new fall-alert device after regularly treating elderly patients following a fall, many of whom had been lying undiscovered for hours.
The device is based on a sensor system. One sensor is contained in the patch worn by the user, while other sensors are wirelessly attached to walls around the house, much like domestic burglar alarm sensors. If the user suffers a fall, the wall-mounted sensors detect the sudden and unusual movement and wirelessly relay a signal to a central control box, also located within the house. The control box connects automatically, via telephone, to a call centre. In order to distinguish between real falls and false alarms, the device is equipped with data-fusion software which allows it to analyse the nature of the fall, including the speed of the fall and the resulting posture of the patient. As a second line of verification, operators at the call centre attempt to contact the user by telephone. If no reply is received to this call, a medical rescue team is immediately mobilised.
Working on Professor Noury’s and Dr Lundy’s initial concept, the key challenges for the FALLWATCH consortium were to miniaturise the system and to make it easily wearable. For this reason, the consortium drew together partners with a broad range of highly specialised skills ranging from personal security to microelectronics, from biomaterials to nanotechnology and from medical adhesives to high performance military and aerospace batteries.
Wearable even in the shower and charged by high-powered, long-lasting batteries, the patch - once in place on the skin - can simply be forgotten about, with the user secure in the knowledge that, should a fall occur, help will be instantly on its way.
In addition to being already in use with Europ Assistance, a distribution contract for the new patch is due to be signed in the coming months in Saudi Arabia, where it will be used to help protect elderly patients in a number of hospitals, including in the major cities of Riyadh and Jeddah. Further potential contracts are under discussion with partners in Switzerland, Italy and Belgium. Looking further afield, says Dr Lundy, consideration of the US market is only at a very preliminary stage as yet, but informal contacts with possible US-based distributors have already indicated that Vigi'Fall® may be well-placed to establish a presence there as well.