The University of Southampton

ECS joins the high-tech future of healthcare

Published: 12 June 2013

ECS researchers are part of an interdisciplinary research collaboration that has been awarded a £12m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to develop a 24/7 digital home health assistant.

The University of Southampton joins the University of Reading, Bristol City Council, IBM, Toshiba and Knowle West Media Centre (KWMC), in the Sensor Platform for Healthcare in a Residential Environment (SPHERE) project that will be led by the University of Bristol.

SPHERE aims to have a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of people with a range of different health challenges by developing a practical technology to monitor people’s health in the home environment, targeting health concerns such as obesity, depression, stroke, falls, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal diseases.

As part of this five-year project the ECS team from the Electronics and Electrical Engineering Group will be exploring ways in which energy can be supplied to body worn devices without the need for batteries.

Their work will build on extensive research that they have already carried out into energy harvesting and creating micro-devices that are powered by external sources such as vibrations rather than batteries. This new project allows them to investigate how their results so far can be incorporated into textiles to be worn by the patient at home.

Professor Steve Beeby, who is leading SPHERE’s ECS group, said: “It is an absolutely fantastic opportunity for us to be part of a major project like this. It enables us to do some really good investigations into the future use of energy harvesting technology and electronic textiles.”

As well as the ECS involvement the University of Southampton also has UK-leading expertise and lab facilities for studying movement in stroke and Parkinson’s disease rehabilitation, and also conducts research into falls and impaired balance.

Professor Ann Ashburn, Professor of Rehabilitation at the University of Southampton, says: “We have limited knowledge of the ways in which individuals move about, negotiate obstacles and on some occasions become unsteady and fall over in their homes. This exciting research opportunity will allow us to detect these situations and make major contributions to fall prevention among the older population.”

SPHERE’s vision is not to develop fundamentally-new sensor technologies for individual health conditions, but rather to impact all these healthcare needs simultaneously through data-fusion and pattern-recognition from a common platform of non-medical/environmental sensors at home.

The system will be general-purpose, low-cost and accessible. Sensors will be entirely passive, requiring no action by the user and suitable for all patients, including the most vulnerable. An example of SPHERE’s home sensor system could be to detect an overnight stroke or mini-stroke on waking, by detecting small changes in behaviour, expression and gait. It could also monitor a patient’s compliance with their prescribed drugs.

Importantly, SPHERE will work hand-in-hand with the local community through Bristol City Council and its partners at KWMC. Leading clinicians in heart surgery, orthopaedics, stroke and Parkinson’s disease, and recognised authorities on depression and obesity will also be involved with the project, along with the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research, Bristol Health Partners and Bristol’s NIHR-funded Biomedical Research Units.

Professor Jeremy Tavaré, Deputy Director of the collaboration, comments: “The involvement of patients, carers, nurses and clinicians from the outset of this project will be key in ensuring acceptability of these exciting new technologies.”

Once practical, user-friendly technologies have been developed further, they will be piloted in a large number of homes over extended periods of time.

Professional William Harwin in the School of Systems Engineering at the University of Reading, adds: “The production of ubiquitous and unobtrusive 'passive sensors' is a key constituent part of this project. These sensors could be embedded in clothing or jewellery, or more ambitiously implanted, possibly in association with remedial surgery.

“Information from these sensors will monitor and track the signature movements of people in their homes and trigger a response in accordance with health needs. This will enable health care experts to respond as appropriate.”

Rodric Yates, Program Director in IBM's Chief Technology Office, says: “Although healthcare budgets and changing demographics are creating serious challenges, the latest technological advances can help society keep pace with this environment. We were pleased to be invited by the University of Bristol to join this important project and will contribute by drawing upon some of the best examples from around the world in healthcare sensing, medical data collection and analysis, and the delivery of healthcare systems. Improving patient care in a cost-effective way and helping people stay independent, for longer, is an objective we share with the University and the city.”

The money awarded to the University of Bristol by the EPSRC is part of a wider package of £32m investment in three new healthcare IRCs. The other two projects are:

Early-warning sensing systems for infectious diseases - next generation smartphone test and tracking systems for serious infections including new strains of influenza, MRSA and HIV - led by UCL (University College London) with Newcastle University, Imperial College London, and The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Multiplexed ‘Touch and Tell’ Optical Molecular Sensing and Imaging - a fibre-optic device to detect potentially fatal lung conditions in intensive care patients, and to continuously monitor the blood in critically ill adults and babies without the need for blood sampling. Led by the University of Edinburgh with Heriot-Watt University and the University of Bath.

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