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Internet of things set to change the face of dementia care

Patient Gerald Hicks trying out some of the technology involved in Surrey and Borders NHS Trust’s trial.
Patient Gerald Hicks trying out some of the technology involved in Surrey and Borders NHS Trust’s trial. Photograph: Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust

Smart bottles that dispense the correct dose of medication at the correct time, digital assistants, and chairs that know how long you’ve sat in them are among the devices set to change the face of care for those living with dementia.

Dementia is now the leading cause of death in England and Wales, and is thought to affect more than 850,000 people in the UK. But a new wave of connected devices, dubbed “the internet of things”, could offer new ways to help people live independently for longer.

“We have got an elderly population, and children in their 40s and 50s are looking after their elderly parents – and they may not have the capabilities to coordinate that care effectively,” said Idris Jahn, head of health and data at IoTUK, a programme within the government-backed Digital Catapult.

While phone calls and text messages help to keep people in touch, says Jahn, problems can still arise, from missed appointments to difficulties in taking medication correctly. But he adds, connected sensors and devices that collect and process data in real time could help solve the problem.

“For [people living with dementia] the sensors would be more in the environment itself, so embedded into the plug sockets, into the lights – so it is effectively invisible. You carry on living your life but in the background things will monitor you and provide feedback to people who need to know,” he said. “That might be your carer, it might be your family, it might be your clinician.” The approach, he added, has the potential to change the way care is given. “It is having that cohesive mechanism to put everyone into the loop, which I think hasn’t existed in the past and it is something that people need.”

Among the projects IoTUK is involved with is a £5.2m venture, funded by NHS England and run by the Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Trust.

One of two NHS test sites embracing the internet of things, the trust has created two living labs at the University of Surrey to explore a variety of connected devices aimed at helping those living with dementia. Eventually such systems could be offered by the NHS to those diagnosed with the condition.

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“The vision is to provide and early intervention and prevention approach – we don’t have a cure for dementia, so it is really about being able to keep people as well as possible,” said Helen Rostill, director of innovation and development at the Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Trust.

Within the next two weeks, says Rostill, the devices will be trialled in the homes of six to 10 volunteers, allowing the team to iron out any issues ahead of a six month randomised control trial, involving 700 pairs of people with dementia and their carers, that will begin in January. “I think this really is personalised medicine,” said Rostill. “This really is about understanding individuals’ patterns of behaviour and deviations from those patterns.”

Amongst the technological developments are scales that monitor an individual’s hydration levels, smart wallets that track how many pills have been removed from a blister pack, bottles that dispense the correct dose of medication at the correct time and can send reminders to smartphones, avatars to guide people through care routines and even sensors that can be attached to chairs to monitor how long someone has been sitting. The data collected will then be processed using machine-learning algorithms, and the resulting information shared with the monitoring team and carers, allowing phone calls, visits or other arrangements to be made.

While individual sensors are currently on the market, says Rostill, creating a system based on a suite of connected devices could prove a boon. “What we are doing here is combining the data from different types of devices which I think will provide a unique window of insight into these very complex conditions that are multi-dimensional,” she said.

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