Using wearable tech for Alzheimer’s … finally!
The other week I shared a very interesting article about a study looking to use wearables in Alzheimer’s disease. This is a disease that takes a huge toll not only out of the patients but also on family and carers (often the same thing). As a person deteriorates the memory loss and confusion associated with the disease can get very dangerous, for example as patients start leaving the cooker on or getting lost outside, like this old lady. The result is that patients often end up having to go into care homes sooner than they would like because it becomes too hard to watch over them 24/7, and because they could end up injuring themselves. Placing patients into care homes sooner helps carers but also places a huge financial burden on those paying for the care home (which may also be the carers).
So it is great to see people looking to use wearables to help support Alzheimer’s patients, and their carers, and to try to delay the inevitable move into a care home. I fully support this and was very excited to read about this new study … but I am also sad. About five years ago, before wearables become the next hot thing, I had already put together a suggestion around using technology, including a wearable device, to support Alzheimer’s patients and their carers. I had tried to have a few conversations with pharma companies and the agency I was with but this idea was just too innovative at the time for anyone to pay attention to. Shame. Firstly how many patient’s and their carers lives would have been improved as a result during those five years? Secondly what a huge benefit a pharma company would have seen by being that innovative and reaping five years worth of experience and closer understanding and relationships with their Alzheimer’s stakeholders?
Back then I had suggested a pharma company partner with a technology company like LG, who at the time was developing an early stage “smart” watch using their mobile tech capabilities. This would have been a very innovative move for pharma – partnering with tech companies was not happening then and it would be a few more years before Novartis partnered with Google to develop the glucose monitoring contact lenses. The idea of the partnership would have been to combine the tech partners capabilities around building a mobile monitoring device (aka wearable tech) and the pharma company’s understanding of the health issues and obstacles faced by Alzheimer’s patients and their carers.
In my mind the end product would have been a watch (or some form of what is now called a wearable) worn by the patient. This would have had a number of functionalities based on what stage the patient was at. For early stage patient’s the device would have acted more like a reminder and would be more for patient only use. It would have used location tracking to provide the patient with information on where they were and, based on what was pre-programmed into the device for that day, what they were there for. The idea here to help patients stay self sufficient for longer, and reduce the distress of memory loss.
As the disease developed, and family and carers got more involved, the tracking functionality could also be used to locate the patient. I remember having discussions with a few friends around this and them questioning personal privacy but I pointed out at this stage the alternative could be restricted movement for the patient. This device would mean they would still have freedom to live at home but if they went missing or were out somewhere for a certain amount of time (again based on what was pre-programmed in) an alert could be sent to a designated person. The example I linked to earlier about the old lady who got lost in a park in the snow is a point in case – the tracker could have alerted someone as to her position.
All of the above is now very feasible using existing technology and in fact there is so much more that could be done using the latest technology to help Alzheimer’s patients and their carers. Besides tracking, reminders and alerts today’s wearables could also track various elements such as heart rate, glucose levels etc which would be particularly relevant for patients with diseases such as diabetes or pre-existing heart conditions for example. A whole ecosphere could be built for patients and carers factoring in wearables, sensors within the home, and online support and management.
It is great to think, and see the possibilities that now exist to improve the outcomes and lives of patients with such tragic diseases such as Alzheimer’s but I question why it has taken the pharma industry so long to get involved – and in fact why even today they are not doing more in this space. The opportunities are there – now it just needs to vision and willingness to be patient centric and accept innovation.