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'Smart' houses to watch over you

03 June 2010

With an aging population and growing numbers of people with chronic conditions there is now a concerted effort to shift routine, non-urgent care from hospitals to the home environment through the use of new technologies. In doing that, healthcare will not only become more personalised, but it can become more cost-effective, and in the current economic climate, that is an important advance. The increasing cost and burden of chronic disease is becoming a huge problem, but new health technologies and new approaches could make all the difference.

Smart houses that recognise when someone is ill or has forgotten to take medication -or even if the fridge needs replenishing - are likely to become commonplace in the UK, according to Jim Briggs of the Faculty of Technology at the University of Portsmouth (UoP). Sensors will be able to 'read' the health and well-being of those who live in a house and upload the information to a secure website for viewing by a relative, carer or medical professional living and working remotely.

An alliance established last year in the USA between GE Healthcare and Intel Corporation is accelerating the innovation and commercialisation of next-generation home health technologies, especially those designed for the elderly, or patients with chronic conditions. Earlier this year, the two companies introduced the ‘Intel Health Guide’ to the UK to aid clinicians monitoring chronic conditions remotely. It combines an in-home patient device with an online interface that enables remote monitoring rather like the UoP project.

Dr Briggs is one of a team of experts at UoP, which was recently awarded project finance under the government's Higher Education Innovation Fund. He has been working in the field of ‘telemedicine’ for 12 years and is currently studying ways to capture more information about the minutiae of how we live in order to develop the specialist sensors that will be installed in smart homes. He is being aided in this work by Newbury-based smart home technology firm, PassivSystems, to take some of these ideas to market.

An inter-departmental team at UoP will test sensors in a `living laboratory' to gather information about what is normal in different environments. The testing and analytics to make a workable, useful smart home have to be rigorous to ensure the sensors can recognise the difference, for example, between someone falling over and someone simply taking a nap.

Basic sensors are already commonly used in some homes and carers find them particularly useful for those suffering dementia because they can easily detect if an oven has been left on or bath taps have been left running. But sensors for the smart home need to be much more sophisticated. Dr Briggs and his engineering partners at PassivSystems are working on a project to develop algorithms that accurately interpret the sensor data and present it to the monitoring party in a clear and appropriate way.

A major problem for elderly people living in their own homes is falls, which account for eight per cent of all ambulance call-outs. If an elderly person in trouble can ring a neighbour then that's fine, but it's not so good if they have to call their son or daughter who lives 100 miles away. Dr Briggs foresees two main customers for the new technology: statutory carers, including councils, and those choosing telecare in their own homes or choosing residential homes with the technology installed. Dr Briggs again:

“This technology will appeal to carers who want the reassurance of being able to log on to a secure site and check the elderly person's daily routine is unchanged. It is incredibly reassuring for family members to see an elderly relative is safe and well. This isn't about installing CCTV cameras in every room; it's about giving relatives and carers a graphic representation of what is going on -- that mum got out of bed at 8am and boiled the kettle at 8.30am like she does every day. But we want the sensors to be capable of not necessarily ringing alarm bells if mum happens to feel like a lie in one day or decides to drink juice instead of tea.”

Eventually Dr Briggs hopes to use artificial intelligence to make the systems capable of 'learning' when to trigger an alarm and when to wait.

Sell off our roads, say motorists
Over three quarters of AA members in an AA Populus poll of almost 19,000 would back the £85-100bn sale of the UK’s motorways and trunk roads to help reduce the government’s financial deficit - but only if tolls are ruled out. The deal would not be backed if the new owner of the roads was allowed to charge tolls; some 82% were opposed to this, 58% of whom were ‘strongly’ opposed. The proposal to sell the strategic road network was first mooted in a report by MN Rothschild last summer but received relatively short shrift then but the new coalition government appears to be breathing new life into the possibility as it seeks to cut the country’s deficit.

AA members were clear that they would only support the sale if the “buyer of the road was paid by the government to maintain the roads and was only able to make money through efficient operations, not through introducing toll charges”. AA president, Edmund King says his members see some merit in extracting the cash value of the UK’s roads to help the economy but they also know they have paid for them many times over through their taxes and are clearly adamant they will not pay for them again through tolls.

“Drivers will also be wary of government reneging on their promise. The toll on the Dartford Crossing was meant to be dropped when the bridge was paid for, yet this has not been done and now the crossing is up for sale. Eighty two per cent of motorists are opposed to any sale if the buyer was able to make money through the introduction of tolls. Our members know there are tough spending cuts on the horizon but they are not ready to pay tolls to help with the cuts.”

Les Hunt

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