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Tuesday, Jan 19, 2021

'Smart home' technology may change life for those with severe mental illnesses: Local researchers

High-tech smart home devices could be helpful in keeping people with severe mental illnesses living safely and happily on their own, London researchers say.

A study team at Lawson Health Research Institute – the research arm of London’s hospitals – has outfitted eight affordable housing units at Canadian Mental Health Association Middlesex and London and Middlesex Community Housing with smart home devices.

Smart home technology available on the market allows people to control remotely many things – including home security systems, heating and lighting – with their smartphone or computer. Researchers have adapted the remote technology to meet the needs of vulnerable patients who have difficulty managing everyday tasks on their own.

“This isn’t just for anyone with mental illness,” said Cheryl Forchuk, who led the smart home project. “They have severe mental illness, they often have other physical health problems. They have problems with memory or organization.”

Study participants will have access to several different high-tech devices, including smartphones and touch-screen monitors for video-conferencing with their care providers, questionnaires and care plan reminders. Depending on the patient’s individual needs, the smart home units  also may have automated medication dispensers and weigh scales, blood pressure monitors and blood sugar monitoring devices connected to the system.

Study participants also may get text message reminders to take their medication or use tracking monitors to measure heart rate, physical activity and sleep patterns.

The private data is relayed remotely to the patient’s team of health care providers. The research team is using computer programs developed by InputHealth, a medical technology company already involved in another Lawson pilot project to test if a mobile app improves mental health access for youth.

“This test is really interesting because these represent major gaps in health care delivery,” said Puneet Seth, chief medical officer at InputHealth. “These are some of the most vulnerable populations that there are so if there’s a way in which our platform can be meaningfully helpful to those populations, all the better.”

With every device and digital platform, the team is taking steps to make sure personal health data is stored and transferred securely, Forchuk said.

The study will test how effective the high-tech intervention is at improving overall patient wellbeing and reducing repeat psychiatric hospital admissions and emergency room visits for mental health reasons.
Researchers tested out the smart home concept at two in-hospital, apartment-style units at St. Joseph’s Health Care London before rolling it out into the community. If the research project proves successful, the digital strategy could be expanded to more patients, Forchuk said.

Four people already are enrolled in the study, which will take more than a year to complete.

This project is funded through the Canadian Institutes for Health Research – the federal agency that funds health and medical studies – the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. and Age-Well, a national aging and technology association.


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